11-18-02, 8:55 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Jon Kitna, who is the Bengals quarterback this week in Pittsburgh, could be the guy for a lot longer than that if he keeps playing at his current level.
"If he can play like this, he could solidify himself," said Bengals President Mike Brown Monday of the future. "Maybe we would feel like we were set at the quarterback position in some way and we could look at other positions to help us somewhere else."
Brown also said both Kitna and Akili Smith will return next year, and while he defers to head coach Dick LeBeau most of the time on lineup calls, Brown also won't rule out a quarterback change that would allow the Bengals to take a look at Smith later this season. It's a move that Kitna bitterly opposes.
"If they're going to change the quarterback, that just goes to prove the fact we're not interested in winning in the long term and all we're worried about is the bottom line," Kitna said Monday.
Asked if he believes his 80-percent play-time incentive (which gives him about $1 million next year) would be a reason for benching him, Kitna asked, "What do you think?" and then said, "I'm not going to get into that today. We could talk about that every week."
Brown won't discuss Kitna's incentive, but he agreed with LeBeau's statement from Monday's news conference that, "(Brown) doesn't tell me who to play at quarterback."
Brown signed Gus Frerotte (who now looks to be the odd man out next year) at LeBeau's urging May 1 and both men insisted during training camp and minicamp that it was LeBeau's call. Now in the mix is that the Bengals are all but out of the playoffs.
"We're 1-9 and next year has to
be taken into some kind of consideration," Brown said. "For us now it's a matter of pride and getting the thing back on track and we're pretty close to that and we want to win games. Jon has been the single most important thing in that.
"Nobody has a guarantee in this business," Brown said. "It's all based on the result and you'd have to say if he keeps playing like this, you'd think it could be his job."
Kitna is fourth in AFC completion percentage, has the Bengals' first 80-plus quarterback rating this late in the season in four years, has had a rating of at least 96 in three of the past four games, and has the Bengals on pace to score 30 more points than last year's team that won six games.
But he still hasn't been good enough to get the Bengals out of the NFL cellar. He is also 7-14 in his 21 Bengals' starts, has lost 11 of the last 14, and his 82.4 rating is the 18th best in the NFL. He has thrown no interceptions in three of his last four starts, but his passer efficiency rating is 28th on the list of 34 NFL quarterbacks.
Passer efficiency is a formula that recently made an appearance in "The Wall Street Journal," where it built a case as being a more accurate reading of a quarterback than the NFL's passer rating. Passer efficiency is computed with each interception docking the passer 50 yards, which is subtracted from his passing yardage total. That number is then divided by attempts.
Kitna is in good, if not solid company at 4.64 yards per attempt. Some of the guys below him are Arizona's Jake Plummer (4.1), Cleveland's Tim Couch (4.4), Minnesota's Daunte Culpepper (4.5), and Houston's David Carr at 4.60. Just ahead of him is San Diego's Drew Brees at 4.7.
But look at the ratings of the quarterbacks of the four first-place NFC teams. Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb is at 5.5, Green Bay's Brett Favre is 6.4, Tampa Bay's Brad Johnson is 6.0, and San Francisco's Jeff Garcia is 5.9. The NFL leader is St. Louis' Marc Bulger at 7.2 and the Jets' Chad Pennington is clinging to the AFC lead with his 6.8 ahead of the 6.7 from Oakland's Rich Gannon and Buffalo's Drew Bledsoe.
But there's no question Kitna is playing the best stretch of his Bengals career, and he didn't have the benefit of a full training camp like most of his peers. He averaged 8.6 yards per throw Sunday, the third time in four weeks he has been 8.4 or more after a 2001 season he was at 5.4.
"Everyone is playing better around me," Kitna said. "Last year I understood where everybody was supposed to be, we just all didn't understand the same thing. I'm more accurate, obviously, more willing to take the check downs. I think the running backs have a lot of catches now. I just kind of understand you always don't have to thread the needle."
The backs have already caught 68 balls this year after catching 74 all last year. Kitna is at 66.7 percent, behind only Pennington, Gannon, and Manning in the AFC. That's off 53.9 percent last year and a career-high 62 percent for Seattle in 12 starts in 2000.