Sunday, October 24, 1999

Akili may lead, but will Bengals follow?

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The Future called them out. Just laid them all bare. He didn't name names, so they're all suspects. Every last one of his Bengals teammates. Who works hard in the mental game? Who doesn't? Who knows?

        The Future left them all guessing. Kabisa Akili Maradu Smith is either gutsy or crazy. Or both. Boomer Esiason never went as far publicly as Smith did this week, and nobody ever stood taller in the home locker room than Number Seven.

        The rookie quarterback's stab at leadership will fall one of two ways. Players will actually do the soul-searching they claim they do already. Or they will look at Smith's two career starts, his contract holdout and his too-public pronouncement and treat him like a blocking sled.

        It depends on how Smith plays. If he wins, they'll follow. If he loses, they won't.

        Leaders aren't appointed. Respect isn't dispensed with the meal money. Akili Smith is walking the slimmest of wires here, and there is no net. Everything he says will be judged by how he plays. Nobody will care about his leadership when he throws three interceptions.

In need of a leader
        If you are the paying public or the heathen media, you loved Smith's remarks. It's about time, you said. Maybe this guy is the leader this team has lacked for every game this decade that Esiason did not play.

        It couldn't hurt, right? What do the Bengals have to lose? More games?

        Probably, nothing will come of it. The players who work hard still will. The players who don't still won't. It will take more than a rookie's observations to save this team from itself. The cycle of losing here is so deeply imbedded, it would take an earthquake — or a general manager and a personnel department — to dislodge.

        But I'm hoping a core of young players — Willie Anderson, Takeo Spikes, Brian Simmons, Artrell Hawkins, Corey Dillon, the usual try-hard suspects — will back Smith, on the field and in the media.

        Make the kid feel loved. Don't big-time him. Because when you think about it, Smith hasn't accomplished much less than lots of players who have been here awhile.

        I don't know if what he says is true. I don't know if players are snoozing in meetings and film sessions. The last time I asked that question — two years ago — a respected veteran since departed said meeting time for the Bengals was like nap time at preschool. The only things missing were blankies and animal crackers.

        You know your football team is in trouble when you're asking players, “So, who's sleeping in the meetings?”

Don't be mad — win
        Here's what I know: Every new player sentenced to play here the last three or four years — Clyde Simmons, Myron Bell, Oliver Gibson, to name some — has said the Bengals talent is comparable to other teams.

        If that's true, then it's not the talent. It's how the talent performs. It's how the talent is coached and motivated. So if Smith says guys are blowing off study time, it makes some sense.

        I give the kid credit for saying it. He truly wants to lead. Maybe he wasn't smart about it. Going 20-gun public to the press may not be the best way (unless you're the press), but I applaud his effort.

        If he made some people mad, tough. Don't take it out on him. Be accountable. Win some games. That'll shut him up.

        The coach doesn't lead. Bruce Coslet scolded Smith and defended his players. Sorry, but 3-13 last year and 1-5 this year is indefensible. It sounds like Smith was doing the work Coslet should have been doing. It looks like he did his coach a favor.

        The NFL's brave new world has St. Louis, San Diego and Washington at the top, and Denver, San Francisco and Atlanta at the bottom. Anybody can win. It's time for the Bengals to pick up on that.

        If Akili Smith's jabs get the program rolling, great. He'll have to play, though. He'll have to shine. Then, he can lead. Then, they'll listen.


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