Boomer: Stick with Kitna

10-9-03, 12:15 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

For those who thought the bye week is the ideal time to replace quarterback Jon Kitna with Carson Palmer, you aren't on the same page with Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis.

Or with the locker room. Or the last Bengals' franchise quarterback. Or even Palmer himself.

"(Kitna) has the full support of every guy in this locker room. Every guy in this locker room feels like he's the guy that can win right now and we're fully supporting him," said right tackle Willie Anderson. "I haven't heard any of that, but I don't listen to the radio."

There has been no sign of turning to the NFL's No. 1 draft pick even though the Bengals' offense is averaging the fourth fewest points per game (15.4) in the league on the way to a 1-4 start.

Even though there is a steady drumbeat outside Paul Brown Stadium for Palmer (and a little drum roll inside), and even though a quarterback guru such as former Bengals head coach Sam Wyche thinks Palmer has to get snaps at some point this season, the resolute Lewis is sticking to his plan of letting Kitna contend for the AFC North title.

Of course, if Pittsburgh had beat Cleveland last week to separate in the AFC North. . .and once the Bengals find themselves out of contention. . .

"But they're not. They've got just as much of a chance of winning that division as anyone," said Boomer Esiason Wednesday as the CBS-TV studio honcho recalled his rookie season of 1984. "Kitna is their best chance. We know that next year is Carson Palmer. Let's see what happens. You've got plenty of time to see. They could win four straight and be in first place at 5-4. That's a very real possibility."

Kitna agrees because, "People around here are so used to going 1-4 and ending up 3-13. I don't think that's going to be the case. I think coming out of this bye week we'll roll off some wins. Look at our next six games. They're winnable. We have to make a couple of extra plays that we've been missing and six weeks from now we could be right at the top of the division."

Esiason loves how these new Bengals have been in every game since the opener, particularly in tough

venues such as Oakland and Buffalo, and calls the AFC North a crapshoot. He thinks Lewis is the infusion of new, outside blood this franchise needs. And he's not exactly enamored with the decision of the first-place Ravens (2-2) to go with a rookie quarterback in Kyle Boller.

"If Baltimore had Kitna, they'd go to the Super Bowl with their defense and running game," Esiason said. "Their quarterbacks and wide receivers are shaky. I think Kitna has played pretty well the last couple of weeks. I've been watching him pretty closely and he's doing what he has to do. I mean, the guy hasn't had Corey Dillon most of the season."

Kitna ("I'm doing what my quarterbacks coach and Coach Lewis want me to do,") has the classic so-so passer rating of 78.4 that puts nine AFC quarterbacks ahead of him and six behind him. He has thrown more touchdown passes (6) than Rich Gannon, Tommy Maddox, and David Carr. He has thrown as many interceptions (6) as Boller and more than Steve McNair and Jake Plummer combined.

But he's also hitting 62.1 percent of his passes, right there with his last year's career high of 62.2, and has the fifth highest percentage in the AFC. He has been a better steward in the red zone this season, where the Bengals are 19th in the NFL in touchdown percentage compared to 27th at the end of last season.

"Kit's playing well. I guess that's the nature of the business," wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh said. "We do well, they take the praise. We do bad, they get the majority of the blame. I don't think too much has been his fault. He threw a pick in Buffalo, but they hit his hand. That's natural when Carson is the first pick in the draft. He'll be all right. They're pretty much double teaming Chad and P.Dub evey play now that we have to pass the ball. I've got to show that I can go out there and stop them from doing that."

Kitna has not only had a limited Dillon, but he hasn't had a seasoned No. 3 receiver since Houshmandzadeh went down with a hamstring problem the week of the opener. Houshmandzadeh hopes to be back for the game against Boller's Ravens a week from Sunday to help Kitna keep on a pace that would give him a team record 352 completions.

He admits he's playing a different kind of quarterback at Lewis' urging.'

"I'm just trying to give us opportunities to win," Kitna said. "I'm not careless with the football. I'm not taking as many chances. I'm trying to keep the completion percentage up and keep the chains moving. That means not trying to throw it into holes."

Kitna's take on the quarterback situation is well known and he reiterated it Wednesday: "It's God's will. Whether that means I'm the quarterback for the next few games or for the next few years, I don't know. (Palmer) has done a very job. He's certainly got all the capabilities you look for in a quarterback. It's not my call (when he gets the call). . .There's never an ideal situation to put him in."

During Wyche's first year as an offensive assistant in San Francisco, the 49ers drafted Joe Montana in 1979. When he was the Bengals' first-year head coach in 1984, they drafted Esiason. They ended up dueling for the NFL MVP award in the late 1980s, after both got work their rookie seasons in different ways.

Wyche's Bengals and 49ers were never really in any playoff hunts, although the '84 Bengals won eight of their last 11. With Steve DeBerg hanging on as the starting quarterback, the '79 Niners went 2-14.

"We didn't really play Joe until the second half of the season and we would put him in spots," Wyche said. "We wanted to make sure we at least got him in for a series some games and then play him longer in others if the situation called for it. We'd plan for it, and if things were going well, we might keep him in there, but if it started to get bad, we'd get him out of there before he'd hurt his confidence.

"At some point, (Palmer) has to get in there this year," Wyche said. "I'm not saying as the main guy, but I don't think you keep him on the shelf for the whole season and not get him any work at all before next season."

Esiason admits it's a tough call. So why not make it until you have to?

"I look at the division," said Esiason, maybe giving a preview of one his Sunday sentences on the "NFL Today." "Anybody can win it."

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