A QB's rollercoaster

10-26-01, 6:05 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

If there is anyone who can appreciate Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau sticking with quarterback Jon Kitna in the dying moments of a 24-0 rout, it is Scott Mitchell.

As the backup quarterback, Mitchell would have been the beneficiary of such a move last week against the Bears. But as a veteran of 71 NFL starts, Mitchell has lived and mostly died with such decisions made while looking over his shoulder.

And this weekend's trip back to Detroit couldn't be more symbolic for Mitchell.

It was here against the Bengals three years ago where Mitchell, the Lions' three-time playoff quarterback who has thrown for more yards than anyone in club history but the legendary Bobby Layne, saw his Detroit career end in the second game of the season. He threw an interception for a touchdown to cornerback Corey Sawyer in overtime, got benched, and never threw another pass for the Lions.

When he went to Baltimore the next year, Mitchell was benched for the rest of the '99 season after six quarters.

"I don't think it's time to panic," Mitchell said this week. "It's about winning games, yeah, but the question is if the quarterback is the problem why you're not winning.

"It's more when we've struggled offensively, you just can't point to one guy," Mitchell said. "To his credit, Dick sees that. He knows so much goes into having success in a situation. I think we have a good system that fits our personnel. I would love to know the coach has confidence in me and is going to give me time."

In fact, that's a big reason Mitchell returned to the Bengals this year. "Dick doesn't have the quick hook," Mitchell said, and Kitna hasn't given LeBeau reason to get lifted in the first six games.

Yes, the Bengals have lost three of the last four games in which Kitna has thrown one more interception (5) than touchdown passes (4). P>But, frankly, he is the closest thing to Boomer Esiason the Bengals have had since Boomer II's sojourn to the television booth after the 1997 season.

Kitna has the Bengals 3-3 for the first time in more than a decade and he is telling wide receivers what he expects in no uncertain terms.

He mixes easily with his teammates and can often be seen wandering down a few lockers to chat with said receivers and to exchange some gags.

Also, a la Boomer, he has been known to take out the offense to dinner on some Friday nights.

And remember how Esiason used to tell his receivers the ball was coming if they ran the right route?

"I've seen Jon do that in the huddle when we have a TV timeout or something," said left tackle Richmond Webb. "He'll go over certain situations to tell certain receivers, 'Look for this, look for that.' I think the guy has done an exceptional job. He's got a good grasp of the offense."

But there's no question he's had his struggles lately. Kitna had the Bengals rolling their eyes on the first two plays of the second quarter last week.

On the first play, a roll-out pass was wide open. But instead of cutting loose, he

kept rolling and slipped for a sack. Then, on the next play, he tried to hurry a pass after a high shot-gun snap and forced a ball into a well-covered zone. When he took blame for the pick, it was quietly noted by the receivers who had been blamed for the previous four interceptions.

But after six games, Kitna also has more touchdown passes (6-4) than Brad Johnson, three fewer interceptions (5-8) than Elvis Grbac, and a better completion percentage than the guy who replaced him in Seattle with 54.6 percent to Matt Hasselbeck's 50 percent.

"He's been as a good, even better than we had a right to think he would be," said Bengals President Mike Brown.

As one Bengals' insider said, "Give him a car that's working, and he can drive it. But he can't drive a wreck."

New offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski, who virtually came with Kitna from Seattle, won't defend him on every play. But Kitna is exactly what Bratkowski thought he would need in this offense.

"It could be better. It will be better as the offense gets more and more in sync," Bratkowski said. "He's managed us well in and out of the huddle and getting us into the right pass protections."

There have been some uncomfortable moments. The fiercely fiery Kitna made it clear early he was going to call out his receivers publicly if they made a mistake. For a band of first- and second-year players, that was tough and different.

"He's hungry. He plays with emotion," said fullback Lorenzo Neal. "I think when you're playing with some guys that don't know how to respond to it. . .

"They just have to realize that Jon doesn't mean anything personal," Neal said. "I think some of the younger guys have never been exposed to that. I think for the veterans, we don't mind that. He just wants to win."

Kitna knows he can be a piece of work at times on game day. But he feels, "The focus has to be on the quarterback on Sunday, because if it's not, you've got too many guys talking.

"I don't say much during the week, but I do on Sunday," Kitna said. "I think the guys have responded well. I enjoy them. I treat everybody the same." P>Receivers coach Steve Mooshagian likes the emotional mix for his young players and thinks veterans like Kitna, Neal, and Webb have been a stabilizing influence. Mooshagian can see how Kitna has timed up with Peter Warrick for 30 catches in developing a relationship.

The problem is, it just isn't going to look pretty at times as the Bengals try to iron out an offense with a quarterback who has worked in the offense longer than his young receivers.

For instance, on one play against the Bears, Kitna picked up a safety blitz at the line and checked into a different pass protection so the primary receiver could continue to run the original route.

But the receiver did a sight adjustment at the line, instead, and broke off the route. So Kitna looked bad throwing it away.

"There are going to be times when Jon looks bad because of things that aren't his fault," Bratkowski said. "It's going to get better the longer we go."

If there's an expert on fiery quarterbacks who have been to the playoffs, it's Webb. For 10 years he was in a huddle that Dan Marino dominated with a passionate fury.

"I think you have to be emotional at times," Webb said. "Especially when you're in a leadership role. A lot of times in the huddle we feed off Jon, (Corey Dillon), guys who are the leaders. I think you have to be that way for some of the younger guys."

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