Comeback player leads comeback year

1-2-04, 7:25 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

For the first time in more than a decade the Bengals carried home one of the Associated Press' major awards Friday when quarterback Jon Kitna was voted NFL Comeback Player of the Year.

It was the best weekend the Bengals have had at the polls league-wide in years. In results announced Saturday, the same 50-member national panel chose Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis as runnerup to NFL Coach of the Year Bill Belichick of the Patriots. Lewis (seven votes) finished a half vote ahead of Dallas' Bill Parcells with Belichick winning the award going away with 35.5 votes.

"That's gratifying to hear," Lewis said. "I want to pass on congratulations to our players, our coaching staff, and everyone in the organization. They all worked hard to make the improvement in the record that led to the voting turning out like it did."

Also announced over the weekend, the Bengals' Chad Johnson is going to start along with Marvin Harrison of the Colts at wide receiver in the Feb. 8 Pro Bowl for the AFC. The other Bengal Pro Bowler, right tackle Willie Anderson, is going to come off the bench for the Ravens' Jonathan Ogden or Willie Roaf of the Chiefs.

Although the panel didn't choose Lewis, they may have rewarded a future coach Friday when they tapped Kitna.

"Jon would make a great coach," said Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski, his coordinator during two different phases of his career. "In Seattle as a young player, he always seemed to get the first down anyway he could. Now, he knows the NFL game inside and out and, in all honesty, he has a better understanding of offenses and defenses and than a lot of NFL coordinators and assistant coaches."

Kitna won by an 8-7 vote over Parcells quarterback Quincy Carter. Ravens tackle Orlando Brown got six votes and Panthers running back Stephen Davis and Chiefs safety Jerome Woods received five each.

The last Bengal to receive an AP honor was wide receiver Carl Pickens in 1992, when he was named the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year. The AP voted Bengals wide receiver Eddie Brown the same award in 1985. The '80s were a big decade for the Bengals, when

quarterbacks Ken Anderson (1981) and Boomer Esiason (1988) were voted NFL MVPs for leading the Bengals to their two AFC titles. Anderson was also named the AP's Offensive Player of the Year in '81.

Anderson's double marked the first time the AP honored a Cincinnati player. The voters tapped Paul Brown for 1970 NFL Coach of the Year after leading the Bengals to the playoffs in just their third year of existence.

Kitna took the franchise's seventh AP award by taking aim at one of Anderson's team records that he set in that '81 season with 29 touchdown passes. Kitna came into the last two games of the season needing four to tie it, but threw just one in finishing with a career-high 26 touchdowns matched with just 15 interceptions that produced a career-best 87.4 passer rating and led the Bengals to their first eight-win season in seven years.

But the voters were clearly looking at the Bengals' record as much as Kitna's numbers. He came into the season with an 8-19 record as the Bengals starting quarterback and led them on a 7-2 surge after a 1-4 start that almost cost him his job to Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer.

Even his greatest year may not be enough to keep his job because the day after the season ended, Lewis wouldn't guarantee Kitna the starting job heading into minicamp.

But for Kitna, who began his college career as the 12th quarterback at Central Washington and ended it as the NAIA Player of the Year, this is business as usual.

"My whole life, I never had anything handed to me," Kitna told the AP. "Nobody thought I was 'the guy.' I was always a pretty good athlete, but I was never one that people clamored about or anything like that. My personality ended up helping me. In this league, very few people are going to have things handed to them. The majority of people have to fight for it."

Bratkowski, Kitna's biggest booster with the Seahawks and Bengals despite some rocky moments, said he didn't feel vindicated by Kitna's Pro Bowl numbers that led Cincinnati to a No. 13 ranking in offense.

"It was all Jon," Bratkowski said. "He was at a point early in the season that he was doing too much, but then he also got some great play by the people around him. I think the big difference is that the people around him were better.

"Look at his receivers. Chad (Johnson) had a Pro Bowl year, Peter (Warrick) had his best year, and was extremely productive, we had some new tight ends that played well, and the running game got rolling for him in the middle of the season."

Kitna, 31, is the first Bengal to be named AP's Comeback Player of the Year. It was instituted in 1998 and has now been won by three quarterbacks in Buffalo's Doug Flutie (1998), Pittsburgh's Tommy Maddox (2002), and Kitna.

The AP said also receiving votes this year were Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis, the AP Defensive Player of the Year, who got four; Green Bay tackle Chad Clifton (four); Minnesota quarterback Daunte Culpepper, Tennessee defensive end Jevon Kearse and Denver quarterback Jake Plummer, each with two; and Cleveland defensive end Courtney Brown, Kansas City running back Priest Holmes, St. Louis running back Marshall Faulk, Denver center Tom Nalen and Jacksonville defensive end Tony Brackens, each with one.

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