As The QB Turns

12-19-01, 4:05 p.m.

Updated: 12-19-01, 9:55 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Call them "The Young and The Passless," because the Bengals' quarterback situation has officially become a soap opera.

With Scott Mitchell suffering a freak rib cage injury during Wednesday's practice that most likely takes him out of Sunday's game and could end his season as well as his career in Cincinnati, the Bengals currently have no healthy quarterback on their roster as they prepare for Baltimore.

Bengals coach Dick LeBeau said before practice that Mitchell might start because of Jon Kitna's injury and the buzz among some players was they thought Mitchell would start.

But the left-handed Mitchell's pulled muscle or cartilage on his right side midway through practice came 72 hours after Akili Smith suffered a season-ending hamstring injury. As Kitna, now the undisputed starter, walked off the practice field Wednesday, he admitted his sprained middle finger on his throwing hand didn't feel as good as he hoped.

"He became the healthiest quarterback we have instantly," said trainer Paul Sparling. "It's not 100 percent."

"It's more sore than I thought it was going to be today," said Kitna after practice. "Today it was more of a factor than since I started practicing last Friday. The good thing about practicing with it is I have time to adjust things if I have to."

Plus, before going out to the field Wednesday, Mitchell, the 12-year veteran, expressed displeasure at his status on the club. Management has indicated it would stick with Kitna and Smith next year and look for another quarterback in the middle rounds of the draft or free agency.

"I'm not in their plans?" Mitchell asked. "How about they aren't in my plans. . .I try not to think about it because if I do it makes me very upset. I'm disappointed about it, no question. Their perception of me here is I'm an old backup guy and that's all they see me as. All I can tell you is when I get a chance, I have some success."

Which all means Scott Covington is most likely Sunday's backup quarterback. He hasn't thrown a pass since 1999 or been around in more than three months since the team released him for the second time in two weeks Sept. 10. He's got five NFL pass attempts, which ties him with punter Lee Johnson on the Bengals' all-time list.

Former Browns quarterback Kevin Thompson, a practice squad player who worked for the first time with the Bengals Wednesday, has one NFL pass, which ties him with receiver Darnay Scott.

The Bengals wouldn't confirm a deal with Covington, but one of his agents said Wednesday the third-year player is on his way to Cincinnati from California and Joby Branion said his client expects to practice Thursday.

Although Mitchell turns 34 in three weeks and threw three interceptions in his only appearance this season, he remains a highly respected player in the locker room. Even Kitna, the man who barely beat

him out for the starter's job in training camp, came to his defense Wednesday.

"That's ludicrous," said Kitna of Mitchell's apparent phasing out. "He's a veteran who knows the system and the players and he's going to cost as much as anybody on the salary cap. In this business, sometimes you don't get rewarded for doing everything the right way. Prepare every day and come do your job."

Bengals President Mike Brown isn't shutting the door on Mitchell. He acknowledged things can change quickly, as they did in last Sunday's 10-minute span in which Smith finished off a 20-play touchdown drive and then got hurt. But Brown also knows Mitchell isn't signed for next year.

"He was going to get his chance I think, but he got hurt," Brown said. "It impacts his future here because if he can't show and he's at the end of his contract, he may not be a fit for the future."

For now, the future is Sunday.

Kitna keeps saying the finger wasn't a factor in his wild passing in the final 4:32 of last Sunday's 15-14 loss to the Jets that produced two interceptions, but it seems to be now. He's treating it by alternating heat and cold on it in different tubs and dipping it in a wax-like substance during meetings. He's preparing himself for some pain.

"I'm trying to maintain the same technique, maybe putting a little more pressure on different fingers throughout the throwing motion," Kitna said. "I'm just really trying not to make any serious alterations or adjustments in the throwing motion."

LeBeau had planned to divide Wednesday's snaps between Kitna and Mitchell and he said Mitchell got in several snaps before going down during the first half of practice. Kitna finished strong after a slow start.

"In the early part, it was bothering him some," LeBeau said. "It's encouraging. (If) it will loosen up and allow him to function like that. . .something we just have to keep loose, that's something we can do."

But it looks Mitchell is someone who can't do. He told people in the locker room he had a similar injury several years ago and it nagged him for a few months.

"My concern is that type of injury for a quarterback can linger for weeks," said Sparling, who is waiting until Thursday to make a call. "He made a throw, followed through, and felt a pop. . .Calling him doubtful is generous."

The 6-5, 236-pound Thompson impressed with a strong arm, but he's got his own injury history. He believes Wednesday was his first competitive practice since late July in the Cleveland training camp. During "waggle drills," his foot got caught in the grass and he tore knee cartilage. He injury settled with Cleveland, got healthy by mid-October, and tried out for the Jaguars before the Bengals called Monday.

Thompson, who signed with the Browns last year as a free agent out of Penn State, spent six games as the Browns third quarterback in 2000 after Tim Couch got hurt. He completed his only pass for eight yards and said he was in line to get more work in the season's last three games. But the next week his ankle got rolled on in practice and he finished the year on injured reserve.

"I'm trying to learn as much as I can in the next three weeks," Thompson said. This week is the most important. I want to get a feel for the system. I want to be able to compete at a higher level."

Don't look for Thompson to be the No. 3 quarterback this week. Not with three days of practice on a new team. LeBeau has indicated the emergency quarterback will be receiver Peter Warrick and his 26 touchdowns as a high school senior running and passing on the option.

On Monday, LeBeau had joked about playing some QB himself as a 1955 All-Ohio signal caller running the Single Wing for London High School.

Asked about the availability of the still accurate passes of 52-year-old quarterbacks coach Ken Anderson, LeBeau said, "Kenny may be taking snaps tomorrow."

So tune in tomorrow.

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