8-26-02, 9:00 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
As head coach Dick LeBeau told the Bengals their Opening Day quarterback is Gus Frerotte during Monday's morning meeting, right tackle Willie Anderson ticked off the names in his head.
Jeff Blake. Boomer Esiason. Neil O'Donnell. Paul Justin. Akili Smith. Scott Mitchell. Jon Kitna.
"What's that now?"Anderson asked as he checked his math. "I've had eight starting quarterbacks in seven years here?
"But I'll say what I've said when I've played with the other seven," Anderson said. "No matter who it is, my job is to keep him clean. We haven't had a lot of wins, and you can't put that all on the quarterback. But that's a position that really needs to be strong if you want to compete for the playoffs year in and year out."
On the day Frerotte became their fifth quarterback in the last five Opening Days and the third playoff quarterback (O'Donnell and Kitna) to try to take them back, the Bengals' ticket office didn't appear to get mauled like the Bills did the day of the Drew Bledsoe trade.
Bengals president Mike Brown knows all this. During Monday's practice, he continued to muse about his elusive franchise quarterback.
"That's not a good thing," Brown said of the unrest. "Everyone knows what the ideal situation is. You get a guy for 10 years and he's your man and everyone times up around him. We've got to find that one guy."
For all Brown knows, it could be the 31-year-old Frerotte. He may not be Bledsoe, but his teammates buzz about his arm and his accuracy, and his bio is filled with Bledsoe-ish moments. Brown has said he has the most talented and accurate arm the Bengals have had since Boomer Esiason in his prime.
"I look at people like Rich Gannon and Vinny Testaverde and other quarterbacks that have moved on and have found a home later on in their career," Frerotte said. "They've gone on, and found a home, which really worked to their success and their skills, and I feel I can do that."
For a franchise that had just two Opening Day quarterbacks during the presidencies of Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush, the uncertainty is an impeachable offense. From 1972-92, it was either Esiason or Ken Anderson.
Where were you in '72? Frerotte was
one year old and now the question in '02 is:
Does an offense in the second year of coordinator Bob Bratkowski's scheme take a step back with Kitna not getting another shot in it and a newcomer taking over? Kitna is, after all, coming off 751 yards in his last two games.
I hope not," said Kitna, who started lobbying for that direction since the team started its seven-game losing streak in November. "The thing is, if I was the guy, I felt like we could have picked up where we left off. That doesn't mean now that Gus is the starter, we can't just start flying right away either.
"He's been in similar offenses to this," Kitna said of the former Redskin. "This is a spin off of a Norv Turner offense, so he's been in that. He's been around this league long enough that one offense is very similar to the next. It's just a matter of terminology."
Kitna, who put down his Bible as the media throng approached following LeBeau's announcement, said all the right things. He pledged to give Frerotte any helped he needed, "and I won't go behind his back saying I would do something differently."
The players find Frerotte's professionalism and command of the huddle similar to Kitna's. But truth be told, the really don't know what to expect from a first-year guy in a second-year offense.
"If we don't produce on the field for a couple of games, I guess you can say that's the reason," Anderson said. "But the biggest thing we have to do is learn his style, how he is in the huddle. We haven't really been with him long enough to know. I won't bull jive you because I don't know. But I don't think it's going to be a problem. I'm staying positive because we've got a lot of talent on offense."
Frerotte seems to sense where his teammates are coming from. One of the reasons LeBeau has high regard for him is because Frerotte is unflappable, easy to be with, and has a history of not saying stuff even if he has a mouthful.
"I'm still getting to learn a lot about the players on this team," Frerotte said. "I think that's the biggest factor for me, learning how to handle guys in the offense, and learning their personalities. Whether you can cuss a guy out or you have to take it easy."
Then he laughed as he made a reference to the guy known as "The NFL's strongest man."
" I don't think I'll ever have to say anything to Matt O'Dwyer. Maybe just, 'Okay Matt, you did a good job.'"
Wide receiver Chad Johnson, who had public blowup and then a much more public makeup with Kitna last season, felt badly for him. He said he doesn't think there will be a step back. But Johnson also said, "Will it be like starting all over again? I don't know. I'm sure Gus can handle it. He's been doing well so far. Everyone else will have to wait and see.
"He's got strong arm, that's for sure," Johnson said. "Very consistent. Always on the money."
Center Rich Braham,. the senior Bengal in terms of years of service, goes back about 18 months longer than Anderson, which includes 15 David Klingler passes.
"I think the thing to look at is our offensive line, backs and receivers have all been together for two or three years," Braham said. "That's a real positive. Once he gets into the season with game plans and studying all the time, he'll be fine. He's got a great arm and he's a good leader."
Now might be a good time to recall that during his first year in Denver's offense in 2000, he went 4-2 as a starter in a stretch that included five straight games the Broncos scored at least 30 points, and set a franchise record passing for 462 yards against San Diego.
"I feel that with the stuff that we've done in camp, I have a good grasp of," Frerotte said. "I'm sure that we're going to get into the season, and we're going to put more stuff in (the playbook). We're going to play teams twice, and you can't just show them the same thing. So we're going to put more stuff in, and it's just going to take more time studying. Jon's been great, Akili's been great, and I'm sure those guys will help me with things that come up if I'm starting in games down the road. But every offense is the same. You're going to have things every game, and every year. New stuff comes on and you just have to be prepared for it."
The one way to raise LeBeau's ire is to question if in his bid to be fair, he has sacrificed reps and failed to get the starter ready for the regular season.
"We were in training camp for 30 days. We've taken roughly 4,000 snaps of the football," LeBeau said. "That's not counting drills, seven-on-seven, or skeleton throwing.
"So if you divide 4,000 by three, you're going to get pretty close to 1,000 snaps that Gus Frerotte has taken. We kept mixing all these guys in with the first line, so it's not like he hasn't taken any snaps. I certainly do not feel uncomfortable that he has had enough snaps."
LeBeau has indicated he'll have a quick hook and he said publicly Monday that he won't hesitate turning to Kitna or third-stringer Akili Smith. Kitna is No. 2, but LeBeau even hinted it wouldn't be beyond the realm to give Smith a battlefield promotion if a game suited his athletic attributes.
But both Kitna and Smith thought LeBeau was just being nice.
"Dick was a player in this league and he understands the need for there to be stability at the quarterback position. I don't think he's going to have the quick pull," Kitna said. "Dick doesn't want to hurt anyone's feelings.
"He said the same thing last year when he announced me as the starter. We went through enough struggles last year that he could have pulled me out of games a number of times and he didn't. He stuck with me and I feel that way with Gus."
Frerotte, who prides himself as a seventh-round pick who has been to the playoffs and Pro Bowl and every place in between, shrugged off the hook.
" If I go out and do what I'm supposed to do every game, then I don't have to worry about that stuff," Frerotte said. "If (LeBeau) feels like we need something to pick the team up, the easiest thing to do sometimes is put a new guy in there and maybe give the team a spark. But I'm not looking over my shoulder, and if Coach has a quick trigger then that's up to him.."