Everyone (QBs too) under scrutiny

1-8-04, 8:25 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Bengals' coaches finish up the evaluation of their personnel and schemes Friday before heading on vacation next week and no one is escaping the scrutiny of the microscope. Including the quarterbacks on both sides of the ball.

Head coach Marvin Lewis continued to say Thursday that he hasn't made a decision regarding the No. 1 quarterback and reiterated what he said the day after the season. There will be a first-team quarterback when the team meets for the first time at the early May minicamp, and the assumption is it will either be the NFL Comeback Player of the Year Jon Kitna or the No. 1 pick in last year's NFL Draft, Carson Palmer.

Lewis did say Thursday that he won't split the snaps in order to determine the No. 1 quarterback, which is why he's making the call before the May camp. Asked if he feels a team has to go through drills and prepare for the season with an unquestioned No. 1 quarterback getting the bulk of the snaps, Lewis said, "That's what I believe."

The news took Palmer a bit by surprise when told of the development Friday, but said he believes he is mentally ready to handle the job in a game.

"After watching and absorbing all year and then having another offseason under my belt, I think I'm ready to make those kind of decisions in a game," Palmer said. "It doesn't really affect me because I'm going to go out and try to prove I'm the best anyway, whether I'm No. 1 or No. 3."

But both understand the importance of Lewis' decision.

"If you're the No. 1 guy going into minicamp, you're going to be the No. 1 guy going into training camp," Kitna said. "And you know I've been a big believer in that. Knowing who the quarterback is right away."

Also Thursday, defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said his staff is looking at all positions and one of the issues is keeping Kevin Hardy in the middle or possibly moving him to left outside linebacker as Frazier works on his top off-season priority of stopping the run. For the first time in his eight NFL seasons, Hardy played the middle on all three downs while Brian Simmons moved from the middle to right outside linebacker.

Hardy, voted the defensive captain by his teammates, drew rave reviews for his work in the locker room as a leader as he made a difficult transition on the field.

"With Brian, he did some good things for us outside and it was a totally new position for him." Frazier said. "New position, new scheme, that's a lot to handle. You have to believe he'll be better this next season after seeing things from a different perspective. I don't know if that's something we need to do much more with other than let him continue to get experience at that position. In Kevin's case, we've got to continue to evaluate it. We have to look at what's best for him and what's best for our defense."

Frazier said he'd like keep both guys on the field next season, "but we have to make sure they're in the right place for us and them." Hardy has never played the right outside spot, so Frazier said he would be a more natural fit at left if he did move. But he also said left outside linebacker Adrian Ross played well before blowing out his knee in the next-to-last game of the season. Plus, this year's fifth-round pick, Khalid Abdullah, also figures to get a longer look at some different spots as a 225-pound speed guy.

"We're looking at everyone, every position," Frazier said. "And we're breaking down the scheme, too. The toughest thing is that we started out well, and then dipped as the season went on. You wish it was the other way. We didn't have a good December. But we're going to fix it and it starts with stopping the run, and you'd have to say it's a combination of scheme and personnel."

The Bengals finished tied for 25th in the NFL stopping the run, and 28th in total defense out of 32 spots, including surrendering three 100-yard rushing days in the last four games.

Frazier has been doing this week the same type of thing that offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski has been doing with his staff. Bratkowski's people have taken one play and broken it down as much as 35 times on tape.

"One time it might be for the stance of a lineman, another time it might be the first step of the running back," Bratkowski said. "Whatever we can find to make better."

It's hard to believe that Kitna can play much better than last season. As the only NFL quarterback to take every snap this season and the only Bengals quarterback to ever do it, Kitna hit career highs in touchdown passes (26), completion percentage (62.3), and passer rating with 87.4. Like the rest of the team, he dipped in December, with four touchdown passes and six of his 15 interceptions.

Palmer won the Heisman Trophy at USC in 2002 before the Bengals took him No. 1 back in April and gave him what amounts to a $50 million commitment in their future salary caps. He was promoted to No. 2 after the bye week, but went back to No. 3 for the last month when Lewis didn't want to force him into a debut with playoff implications.

"I know that it's a unique situaton and that something was probably going to happen, but I don't know what or how," Palmer said. "I don't expect anything. I just plan on getting better, coming in as strong as I've ever come in, and trying to be the best. I'm sure Jon is going to take it like I'm going to take it. Try as hard as you can and see what happens."

The coaches return from break a week from Sunday, when they fly to Mobile, Ala., to coach the North in the Senior Bowl.

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