11-21-03, 9:20 a .m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
It's the best football Jon Kitna has played and he is thanking God, the author of a spiritual cleanser named "Wild at Heart," and all his coaches down through the years from whom he has absorbed something he has used in this career season.
So really, he is thanking Jack Bicknell, and this is always a good week to check in with "Cowboy Jack." Not only did he coach Kitna in his first pro playoff season, but he also coached Chargers quarterback Doug Flutie to the Heisman Trophy 19 years ago in a career that was played mostly B.C. (Before Cable) at Boston College.
Bicknell appealed to Kitna to check his emotions at the line of scrimmage that year in the World League with Barcelona, something that Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis has also pointed out.
"Jack was the first coach to get me to channel all that intensity that I played with," Kitna said this week. "I mean, I was rubbing people the wrong way. I'm a perfectionist. I want everyone to do their best. I want to do my best. Marvin has been good that way, too. (Bicknell) is a guy who tried to get me to calm down and not always try to make a play every down."
It just so happens that Bicknell saw every snap of Kitna's flawless two-touchdown, no-interception game that upset the unbeaten Chiefs with an economical, immaculate 233 yards last Sunday. Bicknell, head coach of the Scotland franchise in NFL Europe, analyzed the game for the British network televising its first Bengals game in the Old World since Super Bowl XXIII 15 years ago.
I was really impressed with his maturity," Bicknell reflected from his New Hampshire home. "When I had him, he thought he could throw it through a keyhole. He honestly thought he could. He's started to realize he can't. You could see that maturity in him to throw it away and go on to play another down."
It's Game 11 and Kitna has turned the past and future upside down. By now, wasn't the matchup supposed to be Flutie vs. Carson Palmer in a game pitting the NFL's oldest Heisman Trophy against the most recent?
But add up Kitna's rankings in the AFC's top 10 passing categories and his number is 61. Only Peyton Manning (25), Tennessee's Steve McNair (31), and Trent Green (38) have fewer.
Still, the big stat coming from last Sunday is the four or five balls Kitna threw away.
"You see, he just didn't do that when I had him," said Bicknell, his coach when Kitna was MVP of the 1997 World Bowl. "After that, whenever I would check his stats after games and see two interceptions, I'd say, 'I know what those were.' And it wasn't because he made bad decisions. He's a smart guy. He wasn't just throwing it up for grabs. He just thought he could always put the ball in small holes in that Cover 2."
Even Kitna seems a bit perplexed by the transformation that seems to have hit him at age 31. On one hand, he says he hasn't changed much from the guy who threw 10 touchdown passes and 22 interceptions in those last 14 games of the 2001 season, his first with the Bengals.
"I don't think I'm playing much differently, it's just that everything else is working together now," Kitna said. "Those guys are seeing it at the same speed I'm seeing it at now. When I first got here, being in the system so long, I knew where everyone was supposed to be, so you throw it to where they are supposed to be. Sometimes they weren't getting there, now they're there.
"The classic example is that play to Peter the other day," said Kitna of the 77-yard touchdown to Warrick in the fourth quarter. " I had never thrown that ball, ever. But I trusted that he was going to do it. We just had a great time talking about that play earlier. That's where we have gotten to, where we just trust each other as a whole."
But Kitna also freely admits he's a different quarterback than even the guy that came off the bench last season to pump his career-best numbers in the last 12 games.
"I'm seeing the football field better than I ever have," Kitna said. "When you are seeing the football field, and you have confidence in what you are seeing, you are going to play better as quarterback, and things have really slowed down. That's what you are looking for as a quarterback.
"Maybe that was a lack of maturity on my part the last few years," said Kitna of throwing the ball away.
A guy like Bicknell can see the massive change in demeanor.
"He looked so comfortable in there. He went through his progressions – one, two, he knew exactly where he was going every pass," Bicknell said. "Back then, he was hectic, too excited. But I didn't see any of that Sunday.
"The thing about Jon is you're getting a guy who cares so much," Bicknell said. "That's the impressive thing about him. I mean, he used to walk away from me. I'd go up and try to talk to him and he'd be so mad about what just happened, he'd just walk away. He'd apologize. He's a great kid, but coaches aren't going to put up with that. It looks like he's just gone through the maturity process."
Bicknell says Kitna reminds him of another NFL Europe product in Cleveland's Kelly Holcomb. Kitna is having a much better season, but so are the people around him, and that's a big part of what Kitna is saying.
"If I'm down 14, 21 points in the third quarter, I'm going to take chances," Kitna said. "But when you're in games, when you know you're going to get a good punt and the special teams are going to make play, and the defense is going to get the ball back for you, or you know the offense can come up with some thing the next time, you can live for another down."
Bicknell also sees how the running game helps Kitna, and, how it helps Flutie. They are two very different quarterbacks, but the running game is going to be a big factor for both Sunday.
"Jon has to stay in the pocket and get the ball out on time," Bicknell said. "Doug is at his best out of the pocket making something happen. Doug really helps the running game because the defensive end is so worried about him flying around the end, that the end is late getting over to that back-side cut by the running back."
The 77-yarder was set up by a running game getting seven yards per pop, and Bicknell insisted, "Jon can go over the top. He can make that throw and he did."
Bicknell came away highly impressed with the Bengals and thinks they're a legitimate playoff team as well as a better team than the Chargers. Whether that means they can beat Flutie is another question.
"He looks like he did 20 years ago," Bicknell said. "He keeps in great shape. He's always playing other sports. He's always been able to find a way."
For Flutie, the future is past and the past is future. For Kitna, there is no past or future. Only the present.
That's where the book, "Wild at Heart," helped a bit, an inspirational work he read before the first victory of the season in Cleveland. Since then, he has thrown 12 touchdown passes and four interceptions.
In the offseason, the Bengals are faced with fitting both Palmer and Kitna under the salary cap. With the Bengals having something like only $12 million to sign 20 players, it's a big-time puzzle.
Here's a guy looking to count somewhere between $3.5 million to $4.5 million under next year's cap because as the NFL's only quarterback who hasn't missed a snap, he'll hit his incentive of taking 80 percent of the snaps. Yet the cap says there can only be one big money quarterback and that's the $50 million man in Palmer.
Of course, the Bengals could always defy the cap. Kitna has said he would like to stay, that he likes the spiritual community and his son's school, and he doesn't want to move his family.
Those are calls that still have to come. But only after the season. Kitna isn't playing like a lame duck with a Heisman Trophy sitting behind him. He's playing well enough to get some NFL trophies.
"That's stuff you don't even think about," Kitna said. "Everything will take care of itself. That's what I said last year. I didn't worry about getting the ($1.6 million) incentive and I did. I'm just looking to the next game and trying to help us get to the playoffs."