4 After 4: Akili Smith, The Athlete
Aaron Rodgers was not the only anointed successor to Brett Favre. The Packers tried at least four other times to find an heir to the Gunslinger's throne. These are their stories.
There was every reason to assume that Akili Smith would be a superstar.
A good enough athlete to play professional baseball before committing to football full time, Smith was a true dual threat. At the 1999 NFL Combine, Smith clocked a 4.66 in the 40-yard dash. At 6-3 and nearly 230 pounds, he was an excellent physical specimen.
He knew it, too. “I really believe I’m the total package,” he told Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com in 1999. “I’ve got great arm strength, mobility, quickness - all the smart stuff a quarterback needs.”
The scouts seemed to agree. The NFL’s own assessment indicated Smith had “exceptional quickness when forced out of the pocket. Reminds scouts of Randall Cunningham for his ability to improvise when the play breaks down.”
Smith coupled that athleticism with tremendous productivity. Smith’s 1998 senior season at Oregon still ranks among the best ever at that university. His 3,763 total passing yards stood as the best mark ever until 2014.
Smith's red flags didn't scare teams
There was no reason to assume that Akili Smith would be a superstar.
Despite rare physical gifts, Smith couldn’t advance beyond rookie-level baseball in his first professional sports career. He tried to return to football after batting .176 in three minor league seasons, but a low SAT score banished him to junior college for two years.
That may have been a sign of things to come. Much-maligned though the Wonderlic has been (and rightfully so), Smith only managed to score a 9 on his first attempt at the NFL combine. He raised that number later, though he admitted he “guessed a little bit at the end and got lucky.”
Smith’s heralded productivity may also have been a mirage from the get go. Despite staggering raw numbers, Smith ended his collegiate career with plenty of holes in his statistical resume. The largest? A completion percentage that never surpassed 58% for a season and dipped below 57% for his career.
By comparison, fellow quarterback prospect Tim Couch had completed 72% of his throws during his senior season at Kentucky.
Smith joins the Bengals
Still, when the 1999 NFL Draft rolled around, the Cleveland Browns were torn between Smith and Couch for the top pick. Ultimately, they went with the more polished Couch. When Syracuse’s Donovan McNabb went to Philadelphia at number two, Smith was there for Cincinnati at number three. To Cincinnati he went.
The Bengals must have been completely sold on Smith, because New Orleans reportedly offered nine picks for the number three spot. The Saints coveted Ricky Williams and offered the Bengals all of their 1999 picks, first round picks in 2000 and 2001, and a second round pick in 2002 in hopes of snagging the running back. Cincinnati held fast, and their front office defended the decision to turn down the deal.
“It was a generous offer, but we felt now is the time to get the quarterback,” Bengals President Mike Brown told the Cincinnati Enquirer.
Head coach Bruce Coslet backed the pick, too, and downplayed any potential bust talk.
“I’m tired of hearing about Dave Klinger,” he said. “Why don’t you guys write about John Elway and Dan Marino? The story of this draft is that we got Akili Smith and a lot of people had him No. 1 on their boards. I’m very pleased.”
Pleased though Coslet may have been, Smith’s problems in Cincinnati began almost immediately. While top pick Tim Couch was under contract before the draft began and second pick Donovan McNabb signed July 30, Smith began his time with the Bengals with a 27-day contract holdout. Negotiations stretched into training camp, and when Smith finally signed on August 23, Cincinnati had already played two preseason games.
Trouble in Cincinnati
Once he made it to the field, Smith didn’t produce. He was milquetoast at best in mop-up duty in the first few weeks of the season as Cincinnati struggled out of the gate. In Week 5, Smith was named the starter and played well, completing 25 of 42 passes for 221 yards and two touchdowns.
Smith’s Week 5 effort was as good as it got in Cincinnati. He started the next three games, but didn’t throw a touchdown and never completed more than 50% of his passes. He was benched after Week 8.
Smith started eleven games in the 2000 season, but threw just two touchdowns. He got one more start in 2001, but threw just six passes.
Smith got a final chance to start for the Bengals in 2002, making the leap from third string to starter in Week 4 as the Bengals bailed on Gus Frerotte. Frerotte put up a historically bad statline the week prior (0 for 7 passing for 0 yards and one interception), but Smith did his best to match it. He finished his day 12 of 33 passing for 117 yards and one interception.
It was the last game Smith would play in a Bengals uniform.
Cincinnati took Carson Palmer with the first overall pick in the 2003 draft and Smith was immediately an afterthought. After logging just five touchdowns against 13 interceptions in his four years with the Bengals, it would be easy to assume Smith’s NFL career was over. But not quite.
Smith's comeback starts in Green Bay
Enter, of all teams, the Green Bay Packers.
On paper, the signing made complete sense for both parties. Though Brett Favre was entrenched as the team’s starting quarterback, the consensus was that Favre was good for two, maybe three more seasons.
That’s what Smith thought, at least.
“With Brett Favre retiring in two or three years, that’s more time for me to sit under him and learn the system and, hopefully, get the chance to compete for the No. 1 job,” he told the New York Times.
Competition didn’t appear to be fierce, either. At the time, the Packers’ depth chart featured Doug Pederson and Craig Nall behind Favre. Pederson was 35 and had little to offer the Packers beyond being Favre’s buddy and golf partner. He was no long term solution. Nall was still largely an unknown, despite a solid stint in NFL Europe.
Couple the realities of the Packers’ depth chart with the one year, $535,000 contract with a $10,000 signing bonus and it seems Smith was in camp for more than a glorified tire kicking.
Packers beat writers were less optimistic. The ever-effusive Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel characterized Smith’s prospects of even making the roster as slim.
On July 21, 2003, McGinn wrote “Smith was an unmitigated disaster with the Bengals and came to Green Bay too late (June 13) to have an off-season of learning a complex offensive system.”
Quarterbacks coach Darrell Bevell was a bit more bullish on his backup quarterback lineup, saying in the same article “I feel really good about our backups. Doug, Craig and Akili. That’s probably better than we have had since I’ve been here.”
A rough preseason for Akili Smith
Whatever momentum Smith’s bandwagon may have had quickly disappeared. Smith didn’t attempt a pass in the Packers’ first preseason game that year, the Hall of Fame game on August 4.
Five days later, Smith went 7 of 12 for 61 yards and an interception against the Atlanta Falcons. Respectable, considering the steep learning curve, but a step behind Nall’s effort (8 of 13, 80 yards).
Smith completed all five of his passes for 45 yards and a touchdown the next week, but the touchdown came on a simple shovel pass to Herbert Goodman. His other four completions didn’t merit mention in any game story.
And then there’s Smith’s effort against the Carolina Panthers on August 23, 2003. The numbers tell you anything you would want to know about Smith’s chances in Green Bay: 3 of 12 passing for 30 yards and one interception.
Two days later, McGinn said Smith was as good as gone. “Akili Smith’s days as a member of the Green Bay Packers appear numbered after he quarterbacked the majority of one of the worst offensive halves in the team’s recent memory,” he wrote.
McGinn went on to quote an anonymous scout, who delivered the death knell: “He’s inaccurate and indecisive with his reads. He looks totally uncomfortable with the offense. Maybe he’s playing with some of the world’s worst receivers but he’s badly out of sync.”
The next day, the Packers announced Smith had been cut.
Despite his lackluster showing in Green Bay, the former third overall pick still got one last NFL chance. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers gave Smith a shot...in NFL Europe. He started four games for the Frankfurt Galaxy, played poorly, and was released.
Two years later, Smith headed north for his final opportunity in professional football: a two year deal with the Calgary Stampeders. Somewhat ironically, Smith ended up playing backup to former Packers backup (and CFL legend) Henry Burris. Smith was as ineffective backing up Burris as he was attempting to backup Favre, and he was cut after appearing in just two regular season games.
Smith later admitted that most of his problems in Cincinnati, Green Bay, and elsewhere were self-inflicted. His off-the-field problems with the Bengals were particularly pronounced.
"We had a 16-week program, and I would be in Cincy four days at a time; then I'd jet back to San Diego [his hometown] and party," he told Sports Illustrated. "I was a complete embarrassment off the field."
Since his football career came to its ignominious end, Smith has come to terms with what happened. "[Being called a bust] used to bother me three years ago, four years ago," he told Yahoo in 2012. "But now when I look back on it, it really doesn't bother me no more. I know that it was me that did it."
Green Bay continued its search for Brett Favre’s replacement.