Erickson thinks Kitna can be Super

3-26-03, 9:10 .m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

PHOENIX, Ariz. _ Former Seattle head coach Dennis Erickson is back in the NFL and the last time he was here, he thought a 26-year-old quarterback named Jon Kitna was about to emerge.

After a five-year hiatus, Erickson has re-surfaced as head coach of the 49ers and Kitna isn't so young, but Erickson still thinks his guy is on the verge of a big year in his third straight season in offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski's system.

"Brat knows him, that's what's great," Erickson said. "I'd be surprised to see anybody, I don't care who they draft, is going to come in and beat him out. The two guys you guys are talking about (Carson Palmer and Byron Leftwich) will be great players, but they're not going to come in the first year and pick up all that stuff."

Bratkowski was Erickson's offensive coordinator in Seattle and was there when

Erickson plucked Kitna out of free agency, the NAIA, and Central Washington.

"He was accurate, had a quick release, and when you sat down to visit with him, he's real smart," Erickson said. "Physically, he doesn't have a gun on him, but he gets it there and he's competitive as heck."

Erickson insists Kitna can take a team to the Super Bowl, "if you surround him," and he thinks they have. He recommended the Bengals take wide receiver Chad Johnson, a player Erickson had at Oregon State.

"I couldn't understand what was going on last year," Erickson said of the move to Gus Frerotte and Akili Smith before turning to Kitna five games into the season. "I think he's got a chance, and I think that's going to start to turn around (in Cincinnati). He knows where to go with the ball, he gets rid of it, he knows Brat, and he's a tough guy."

SLANTS AND SCREENS: Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, director of business development Troy Blackburn, and vice president for player personnel Paul Brown left the last day of the annual spring meetings Wednesday to watch the workout of Arizona State defensive end Terrell Suggs. Sources outside the Bengals said the 253-pound Suggs had a bad day with a slow 40-yard dash, and he looked heavy and a bit out of shape. . .

With Lewis not commenting on league matters and Bengals President Mike Brown not commenting period, one has to deduce how the Bengals feel on a proposal to change overtime and a plan to expand the playoffs to one team in each conference for a total of 14.

OT got voted down Wednesday for a one-year trial, coming up seven votes shy. The playoff question got tabled to the May meeting.

Maybe Lewis felt like another defensive head coach, the Colts' Tony Dungy. Here's how Dungy feels about giving each team one possession in overtime. He wants to keep the current sudden death system: "It's an advantage to the team getting the ball second. They know what they need to do to win, or to keep the game going. The way we do it now, you need to use your defense to stop them if they get it first and that's part of the game. All during the game you rely on one part of your team, whether it's offense, defense or special teams."

As for the expanded playoffs, Brown may feel like another old-line owner, the Steelers' Dan Rooney: "We have a great system. Why do we want to imitate other sports? The regular season in the NFL is everything. You practice a full week to get ready for the game. It's meaningful Now you're saying everybody gets into the playoffs?"

DEAN REGISTERS: Dean of the Bengals, right tackle Willie Anderson, is enjoying the first week of voluntary workouts. Anderson, heading into his eighth season, has seen enough to temper his enthusiasm. But he admits when he saw the splashy renovated weight room and the sea of fresh orange paint hit him in the eyes, "I felt like I was on a new team."

"I feel good because when I walk around, the things I've been hearing are great," said

Anderson of the locker room. "To hear, 'Just doing this will make us better,' is a positive thing."

Anderson can't say all the bad memories are going to go away in a puff of smoke. But he thinks the fact Marvin Lewis is an outsider to the organization is a big plus.

"He's got no connection. He doesn't give a hoot what's gone on before. It can't get constantly thrown up in his face," Anderson said.

Anderson remembers what they told him at Auburn when they recruited him out of high school. It was his first visit and they knew he would go the palaces at Florida State, Tennessee, Alabama. And they told him it's not the building that matters, but the people inside the building. Which is why he didn't get hung up on the $250,000 weight room, but he is thoroughly impressed with strength coaches Chip Morton and Kurtis Shultz.

"They're like personal trainers in the sense that they're training you for a heavyweight fight," Anderson said. "They explain everything they're doing and how it relates to football. They're talking about everything. Diet. How big the portions are that you eat. He hired some great guys."

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