Backing up Palmer a big ?

Posted: 7:55 p.m.

As the Bengals backup quarterback situation appears now, while Jon Kitna pursues a starting job in free agency the club must look at other options. That, obviously, could change and they could find each other again before or after March 3.

One thing that is sure to change from now until March 3 is the pool of available quarterbacks. The list you see now isn't the same one you'll see on the first day of free agency.

For once, a backup position is going to dominate offseason discussions and for good reason. While Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis expects Carson Palmer to return from reconstructive knee surgery in time for the opener, he says the club has to prepare like he's not. If they decide they can't rush Palmer, the next guy has to be good enough to keep their playoff hopes alive for how long? One game? Two? Four? More?

Heading the list of cuts at some point is probably Steelers quarterback Tommy Maddox. He has gone from 2002 Comeback Player of the Year to no lo contendre in Pittsburgh. He'll be 35 Opening Day and he lost his two starts this season, including a game against Jacksonville in which he threw an interception in overtime that was returned for the game-winning touchdown.

But before he got hurt in the second week of the 2004 season to make room for Ben Roethlisberger, Maddox threw 38 touchdowns against 33 interceptions in the 2002 and 2003 seasons. In '02, he averaged 7.5 yards per pass and led the Steelers to a playoff victory.

Another possible free agent is Jay Fiedler, a Bengal for 25 days in the 1996 training camp. With Chad Pennington and Brooks Bollinger already in tow for the Jets, is there any room for him? He threw just 13 passes this season after being the man in Miami for most of the previous five seasons. Fiedler, who turns 34 on Opening Day, has 69 career touchdown passes compared to 66 picks, and he's a got a .617 winning percentage in 60 NFL starts.

One roster to take a hard look at is Tampa Bay. It figures the Bucs are not going to keep the trio of Brian Griese, Tim Rattay and Luke McCown behind Chris Simms.

Rattay could be a guy to look at simply through his connection with former 49ers head coach Dennis Erickson, the mentor of Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski. Rattay, an Ohio native who turns 29 in March, started 12 games under Erickson in 2003 and 2004 and went 3-9 with some bad clubs. He threw 17 touchdowns and had 12 picks in that stretch for an 83.8 passer rating.

The problem with Griese is at age 31 he's coming off the same surgery as Palmer, a repair of a torn anterior cruciate ligament and torn medial collateral ligament. He had his surgery in late October after leading the Bucs to a 5-1 start, making his starting record in nine seasons 39-33. Tampa coach Jon Gruden says he wants to keep all four, but he probably can't and Griese may be the odd man out with a sizable option that has to be exercised in March.

With Lewis basically ruling out drafting a quarterback in the first three rounds, that probably also means the Bengals won't trade a first-day pick for one and that would eliminate Atlanta's Matt Schaub. He'd also be too pricey.

Tennessee's Billy Volek, who turns 30 in April, threw 88 passes backing up Steve McNair this year after his big 2004 season in which he threw 18 touchdown passes in eight starts and 10 games for an 87.1 rating. But the Titans situation is murky. They first have to re-do McNair's contract to avoid a salary cap disaster. Then they have to decide if they want to exercise a $500,000 roster bonus on Volek, a deal that will be impacted by McNair. If Tennessee drafts a quarterback at some point, that could put Volek on the block.

Bottom line?

The backup situation is just like Palmer's at the moment.

Anything is a guess.

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