Another QB, another test

8-28-01, 8:15 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

On the day Jon Kitna became the ninth different quarterback scheduled to start a regular-season game for the Bengals in the past 10 years, why not pick the brain of the guy who did it five years apart?

"It doesn't come down to physical tools. It comes down to who can inspire his teammates," Boomer Esiason said Monday morning of head coach Dick LeBeau's impending announcement.

"When he walks into the huddle, does he know how to call the right protection against a surprise defense?" Esiason asked. "Does he point the finger after a loss? Does he throw three interceptions every other game?"

Bengals President Mike Brown, who has spent so much money and time on finding Esiason's successor, is still looking in 2001. But he feels better with a five-year veteran in Kitna who has a .545 career winning percentage, a 12-year guy in Scott Mitchell who is comfortable in the offense, and a one-year older Akili Smith.

"While we don't know for sure if we have a (long-term answer), we know that we're going to be better than we were," Brown said.

Esiason, the last quarterback to lead the Bengals to the playoffs (1990) and the last quarterback to lead them to respectability (1997), thinks the Bengals would have been better served naming a starter before training camp and giving him most of the snaps. LeBeau agrees with him, but felt he didn't have that luxury. But Esiason also acknowledges quarterback is a veteran's position and Kitna may supply some answers.

Esiason's ideal of the quarterback/leader is the Eagles' Donovan McNabb.

"He still has to learn not to run out of the pocket like a crazy man all the time and get himself killed," Esiason said. "But he inspired his teammates by making MVP plays. He wasn't surrounded by a great cast, but he got them to the playoffs leading by example."

Kitna, a young journeyman who went to the playoffs to the doghouse in 10 months last year in Seattle, is a hardened veteran who prides himself on just that set of intangibles.

When LeBeau ended Monday morning the quarterback derby that started back when Kitna signed as a free agent March 8, Kitna said he felt the change in his own demeanor as he headed to the morning walk through.

"As a quarterback, you want to take control of things," Kitna said. "But when you're in a competition, especially a three-way competition, you don't want to step on somebody else's toes. So you kind of guard yourself a little bit. It's more of a mental thing than anything."

It was just those kinds of intangibles that make Mitchell a hugely popular figure among his offensive teammates. They remember last year when he rescued them from Akili Smith's inexperience and supplied a competent NFL passing game that led the Bengals to a 2-2 finish.

It was those intangibles that left Mitchell crushed in the wake of LeBeau's decision. Clearly, Mitchell thought he had won the job with his 17-point effort in Detroit Aug. 10 and what could have been a 17-point effort last Saturday night if a catch was caught and a field goal kicked.

But Brown echoed the organization's thinking when he said it was a close call

that went to Kitna's accuracy and and mobility.

"I'm disappointed, to be honest," Mitchell said, remembering how much he meant to the team last year. "It's hard because you work hard and invest a lot into it physically and emotionally.

"It's hard when you know you can help your team win," Mitchell said. " I would really like that opportunity to really do it. I haven't had that opportunity here. It makes it hard."

Mitchell knew at some point he would say all the right things because he is the consummate pro. Maybe Tuesday he would say he would prepare himself
and be ready and that teams need at least two quarterbacks to survive a NFL season.

But he couldn't say it Monday.

"I need a day of mourning," Mitchell said.

LeBeau, another consummate pro, nodded his approval.

"He's a human being," LeBeau said.

So is Kitna, and just as clearly the competition had taken some of his edge that he gladly regained Monday. The street-wise kid from Tacoma who was never supposed to make it at some place called Central Washington, finally revealed some of his bedside manner.

No, he would not talk to the team as a group.

"I think when you talk to a team you end up saying things that a lot of guys don't really need to hear," Kitna said. "I've talked to guys individually my whole career. I speak and talk differently to Darnay Scott than I do to Richie Braham.

"So I try to do things differently and build relationships that way. All the outside distractions are gone now and (it's time) to move forward. Hopefully, we're pulling all in the same direction."

In Saturday night's 20-10 loss to the Bills in which Kitna didn't generate a point during his half of work, two plays surfaced that beg the question.

With the Bengals set to open the season Sept. 9 against the Patriots, is two weeks enough time to give the No. 1 starter all the snaps needed to prepare for a season after a training camp of shared snaps?

For instance, Kitna makes his first handoff to Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon in a scrimmage or game in Thursday's pre-season finale against the Colts.

On one play Saturday, Kitna fumbled a snap from his center, Braham. On another, he didn't anticipate how receiver Ron Dugans rounded off a route and they couldn't connect on a third-down pass. Dugans should have run it crisper, but maybe Kitna could have sensed what Dugans was going to do with more game reps.

But maybe not.

"This has been no different than any other training camp I've ever been in," Kitna said. "All the quarterbacks are throwing to all the receivers. It doesn't matter if it's No. 1 or No. 3 because everyone is always rotating."

LeBeau offered, "It depends how you look at it. (The Bengals' quarterbacks) have had more game snaps than (other teams). All these other guys are in there a series and out. Our guys have gone all the way the whole preseason. . .Nobody is working with the same (players in) training camp all the time because of the numbers. They revolve in and out."

Kitna admitted he needs time to learn the nuances of his receivers. What it means when a receiver dips his shoulder, or how an individual receiver reads a certain coverage.

"They'll understand me a lot more as the season goes along," Kitna said.

It all began in earnest Monday. As if to symbolize trying to master even the smallest of tasks, Kitna stayed after practice briefly with Braham to take some snaps. Kitna had a similar problem in Seattle last year, when he led the NFL with 17 fumbles, and in this training camp.

"I carry the ball deeper than our other centers," Braham said. "He doesn't have to reach for it. When he does, it goes right through his hands. It's just a matter of working it. We've got plenty of time."

Tight end Tony McGee, the dean of the offense who has played with all eight previous quarterbacks, thinks the extra time between the last pre-season game and the regular season can only help.

"We just need some consistency in the passing game and that's going to come," McGee said. "We just need the same unit to work together for a little bit in a game, but I think we've got time in two weeks to get ready. Jon's a veteran and he'll have some extra days.

"If we win that first game, (the media) will say it was enough time," McGee said. "If we don't, you'll say it wasn't. So let us know."

Kitna and the first unit figure to play at least half and maybe more Thursday, unusually long for a pre-season finale. But LeBeau noted they don't play again for 11 days.

As Brown said when asked if his quarterback had enough time to get ready for the season, "it better be."

Esiason isn't sure.

"The way things are, you know the other guy is going to get a chance to play in week 4, 5, 6, whatever," Esiason. "So give the starter the chance at the beginning."

But Esiason is also one of these guys who thinks the preseason is a joke when it comes to predicting what will happen in the regular season.

"It's all going to come down to if he can make the play on third-and-4 and third-and-6," Esiason said. "And do they trust him enough to throw on first down?"

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