The lights at Madison Square Garden could not have been brighter on April 17, 1999.
The Manhattan Skyline was glittering outside, high above the tumult from the ‘City that Never Sleeps’ and the nation’s star-studded collegiate football players were minutes away from becoming professionals.
The 1999 NFL Draft proved to be unlike any other. For the Cincinnati Bengals, it was the climax to an insufferable decade. NFL football in southwest Ohio hit its dark point in the 1990s. The Bengals started the decade with a win in the 1990 postseason but followed it with three straight last-place finishes. Over the next five seasons, Cincinnati went through two head coaches and lost 65 percent of its games, never finishing better than third in the AFC Central.
A 13-loss season in 1998 granted the Bengals the third overall pick in the ’99 draft. One that would certainly yield them a quarterback, after a failed experiment with ex-Steeler Neil O’ Donnell under center the year before.
The Cleveland Browns, returning to the NFL after owner Art Modell moved the team to Baltimore after the 1995 season, took Tim Couch with the first overall pick. Next, the Philadelphia Eagles, who were ready to move on from Bobby Hoying, picked Syracuse product Donovan McNabb second overall.
The Bengals were on the clock. They were set on taking a first-round quarterback for the first time since David Klingler in 1992. So set, in fact, that not even a slew of picks, offered by New Orleans Saints coach Mike Ditka with hopes of snagging Texas running back Ricky Williams, would change Mike Brown‘s mind.
Ditka offered the Bengals nine picks – all six in 1999, a first-rounder in 2000 and 2001, and a second-rounder in 2002.
Despite calling it the best offer he had ever seen, Brown kept his team at three and drafted quarterback Akili Smith out of Oregon, who was coming off a 32-touchdown senior season with the Ducks.
The decision was almost immediately regrettable. Especially when the Saints moved up to pick no. 5 to draft Williams and Cade McCown, the no. 2 option on the Bengals’ board, was still available. He would get taken at 12 by Chicago.
Four months later, more regret. Smith and the Bengals went through a contract holdout prior to his first preseason. They finally settled, though, in late-August to the tune of a seven-year, $56 million deal – plus a $10.8 million signing bonus – making him the highest paid player in franchise history.
In the end, Mike Brown was wrong to give Smith such an expensive deal. But he was right about one thing. From the Enquirer‘s Tim Sullivan who covered the Bengals at that time, Brown said, “There are five quarterbacks who went in the first half (of the first round) of the draft. If it runs true to form, one or two will pan out, one will be mediocre, and two will wash out.”
Smith didn’t wash out, he was carried out on a tsunami wave of inefficient play, incomplete passes, interceptions, and fumbles.
From Hero to Zero
The long bright spot of his career came in his fourth career game. He led the Bengals 80 yards in the final minutes and threw a game-winning touchdown to Carl Pickens with five seconds left to beat Cleveland (and Couch, the first overall pick six months earlier), 18-17.
Smith’s next win wouldn’t come for another 12 months. He was the starting quarterback on record but was benched the day Corey Dillon broke the NFL’s single-game rushing record against the Denver Broncos on October 22, 2000. Smith got the win – completing just two of nine passes.
Smith’s limitations were soon discovered. Mostly his inability to adapt to the fast-paced NFL game and reading an offensive playbook.
The numbers are abysmal, which is why Smith is widely recognized as the biggest bust in franchise history. Over 22 games he was 3-14 as a starter, sacked 59 times, completed just 46.6 percent of his passes, fumbled 22 times, threw 13 interceptions, and only five touchdowns.
He appeared in only one game in 2002 – posting a 34,5 passer rating in a 28-point loss to Tampa Bay – and never played in the NFL again. He last showed up on the field in NFL Europe in 2005 and the CFL in 2007.
Onwards and Upwards
His successor, Jon Kitna, quarterbacked the Bengals to an 8-8 record one year later. He also played mentor to no. 1 overall pick Carson Palmer for three seasons, leading to a division championship in 2005.
Thankfully, the Bengals won’t be ‘bungling’ on any quarterbacks soon. They haven’t drafted a first-round signal-caller since Palmer in 2003. Current QB Andy Dalton, a second-round pick, has already achieved more than three of the four quarterbacks that were taken in the first round in 2011.