10-2-02, 10:15 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
With his team going under at 0-4, Dick LeBeau told the Bengals Wednesday they would "sink or swim," with Jon Kitna at quarterback after nine weeks of waves at the position.
With the Bengals only ahead of the expansion Texans in NFL total offense and Kitna setting a Bengals' record with 751 passing yards in back-to-back games to end last season in his final two starts, Wednesday's question is why didn't the Bengals dive in with Kitna to begin 2002?
Probably because while he threw seven touchdowns and four interceptions in the six wins last year, he became the NFL's lowest-rated passer with five TDs and 18 interceptions in the 10 losses.
But 12 TD passes is 11 more than they have now.
For the first time, LeBeau solidly backed one of the trio that endured the training camp derby, with the coach admitting the decision-making process had not gone well.
"The record tells you that," LeBeau said. "I wish my decisions we're always correct, but when you're 0-4, they're not."
His locker room greeted the news of a stable starter with relief.
"Maybe the musical; chairs can slow down a little bit now," said fullback Lorenzo Neal.
"Timing is critical," said wide receiver Chad Johnson. "You have to know what each receiver is going to do. It's easy to say just drop back and and throw it to him. But it's not like that at all."
"They recognized there was a problem to keep changing like that and that's good," said right tackle Willie Anderson, one of the offensive captains.
Less than 48 hours after blasting the Bengals for failing to keep the continuity he developed during 15 starts last season, Kitna took back the reins with the same fire Wednesday. Although Kitna doesn't have Akili
Smith's athleticism or Gus Frerotte's arm, the coaches hope his competitiveness, knowledge of the system, and his six wins from last year are what is needed to pull the offense out of this abyss.
Asked if Kitna's combative style is needed to stir a dormant offense, Johnson said, "He's in your face. Yeah. He's a good leader because he knows it inside and out, like the back of his hand."
Johnson should know. He and Kitna berated each other on the sidelines in the final moments of a 16-0 loss in Baltimore back on Dec. 23. After the makeup, Kitna and the receivers went off in the final two games.
Kitna is at it again. All the receivers but Ron Dugans and Peter Warrick stayed after practice Wednesday for about 10 minutes taking throws. Johnson worked with Kitna on the long route that was open about four or five times last week against Tampa, but didn't get completed. Either because of timing or poor pass protection.
"I hope I'm not seen as a guy that gets in people's face, just a guy that holds people accountable," Kitna said. "I don't expect anything from anybody that I don't expect out of myself. That is preparing throughout the week, and getting yourself ready to play. If you're injured, and you can't go full-speed, just tell me. I'll work with somebody else that week, and when you start feeling better we'll work together. That has been part of the problem."
Kitna is at ease with himself about his critical comments earlier in the week because he's been telling the staff the same thing all year. He's not afraid to be as open with the wideouts.
"Right now, we're 0-4, and we haven't done a thing. Everybody knows that, and it's as ugly as I've seen in my seven years in the league," Kitna said. "That's the reality of it. But the other reality is, as a competitor, it's not over. I look at the season as four quarters. We lost the first quarter, 0-4, and we've got to make it up in the remaining quarters. We've got to do something starting this week, and it's really got to come down to the practice field. I told the guys the only thing I want all this week is for them to go full speed all week. We'll be timed-up and ready to go."
Wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh clicked with Kitna last year even though he played very little. He grabbed nine balls for 98 yards in Kitna's 411-yard effort against the Steelers and is aching for the feeling again.
"I think Coach LeBeau is looking at it like on offense, we just have not played well at all. Period. From top to bottom," Houshmandzadeh said. "And he's figuring Kitna can hopefully stabilize that with his knowledge of the offense."
Anderson's word for Kitna is "control," as in his command of the offense. The players pretty much echoed Houshmandzadeh when asked if they wondered where Kitna went after throwing for 340 yards against Tennessee in last year's finale.
"Yes and no," Houshmandzadeh said. "We were in a system last year. So why not see what we can do this year after a year? I guess we've got 12 games to see now."