3-07-01 BY GEOFF HOBSON
Let it be known the Bengals haven't given up on franchise quarterback Akili Smith. And a major reason is because new offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski hasn't.
Bratkowski calls Smith's measurables, "exactly what you're looking for in an NFL quarterback. He's got it all." But Bratkowski wants Smith to combine his ample physical skills with the intangibles of the game.
Much like they have been mastered by the man who could very well beat out Smith for the No. 1 job this season. Free-agent Seattle quarterback Jon Kitna left Cincinnati Wednesday without a contract as the Bengals tried into Wednesday night to wrap up a deal with him or Broncos backup quarterback Gus Frerotte.
Frerotte agent Ralph Cindrich and the Bengals spent much of the day trying to figure out how to compensate a player who could become a backup, a starter, or both. Cindrich planned to talk Thursday morning with Bengals director of business development Troy Blackburn.
Maybe Kitna left without a deal, but he left a strong impression again on Bratkowski, his old offensive coordinator who broke him in with the Seahawks.
"No. 1, he's got a great amount of poise. He never gets flustered," Bratkowski said. "He's a great leader. If you look at his career stats, they're pretty solid."
Bratkowski raves about Smith's "arm strength, size, speed, mobility," and leaves no doubt Smith gets a chance in his new playbook.
"Absolutely," Bratkowski said. "I told Jon if he came in, it's an open competition, no holds-barred and let the best man win. Akili's got the measurables. What has to be determined is how he approaches his profession, poise on game day, and his resiliency. I see a lot of hope in this guy."
Kitna is serious enough about the Bengals and Bratkowski that he brought wife Jennifer and agent Carl Lopez on the trip. Lopez is considering trips elsewhere, but his client likes the fit with Bratkowski and head coach Dick LeBeau.
The Bengals gave Lopez an offer he called "a good starting point," and he plans to talk Thursday with the club.
Kitna is everything Smith is not. Smith, 25, out of the Pac-10 at Oregon, is the third pick in the 1999 NFL Draft. Kitna, 28, is an undrafted free agent out of the NAIA at Central Washington in 1996.
Kitna may not be big (6-2, 215 pounds) or fast, or have the strongest arm. But the man is 18-15 as a starter, took a team to the playoffs, and has 49 touchdown passes in 33 starts.
"That's all I've ever asked for in this league," said Kitna of the open competition. "When you come in as an undrafted free agent from a small college, all you want is an opportunity to compete."
But where Smith and Kitna have a common bond is both got benched this season. The Bengals can only hope Smith bounces back like Kitna did.
When Brock Huard got hurt, Kitna came off the bench and gave Seattle
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** a huge win in Jacksonville for a game he won AFC Offensive Player of the Week.
"I look at last year as two different seasons," Kitna said. "There was the first half
and I was able to come back the last half. That's where I learned. Quarterbacks have to go through the growing pains and in this day and age there are a lot of times you don't have that opportunity. For me to come back and learn from past mistakes and have a chance to play better at the end of the season, I think my best football is ahead of me."
Last year wasn't his best football, when he couldn't follow a '99 performance in which he took Seattle to its only playoff appearance in the last dozen seasons.
But he indicated a change of scenery would be nice. He made no bones about the fact former Seahawks head coach Dennis Erickson "discovered," him and was his sponsor. Not so with new head coach Mike Holmgren in 1999.
"I've been on both sides of the fence," Kitna said. "I've been the guy where the head coach, you're his guy. And I've been the guy where you're not necessarily his guy. You get a chance, but that leash is kind of short."
Kitna got ripped this past year for not going down field, but Holmgren was apparently in his ear about not making mistakes. Still, under Bratkowski he had touchdown passes of 59 and 71 yards in 1998. Kitna is clearly comfortable in the offense, which he compared to the Rams and what Norv Turner ran in Dallas and Washington.
But while reuniting with Bratkowski, Kitna was drawn to LeBeau.
"More than anything what I've heard about Coach LeBeau has been the greatest (draw)," Kitna said. "Players really respect him and want to play for him. People I respect, they didn't play for him, they just knew him, spoke highly of him. That's the draw. You want a coach that shoots straight, be honest with you, and he seems to be that kind of guy."
So does Kitna, who was honest with the media when asked what he seeks on the free-agent market.
"My No. 1 priority is I'm a firm believer in Jesus Christ," Kitna said. "My priority is where he wants me to be. Fooballwise, I just want to be somewhere where you're wanted."