Frerotte tired of watching

5-1-02, 5:15 p.m. Updated:
5-1-02, 10:15 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

After four years of watching, it came down to Gus Frerotte wanting to know deep down if he could again be a starting quarterback in the NFL.

Which is why on Wednesday he took the Bengals' one-year contract that figures to pay him about a reported $1.4 million instead of returning to Denver for a third straight season and backing up Brian Griese for $1 million.

"In the end, I wanted to bet on myself instead of betting on somebody else to get hurt," Frerotte said Wednesday night from his Pittsburgh-area home. "I know I have to come in and win the job and I have to work my butt off and it won't be handed to me. But this way, I'll know I can still play."

He thinks he can. In last week's visit to Paul Brown Stadium, Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau satisfied Frerotte's desire for a competition and told him he would get a fair shot to find out. He comes in No. 2 behind Jon Kitna, but LeBeau has said there will be a competition like any other on the depth chart

So Frerotte, who turns 31 in training camp, wanted the economics to match LeBeau's scenario. When the Bengals and agent Marvin Demoff crafted a deal similar to Kitna's for compensation this year (play-time and winning incentives can jack both their contracts) a deal was struck Wednesday afternoon after the sides agreed to disagree on a three-year deal.

The majority of the money is bonus and salary. Although it wasn't planned, the $1.2 million saved under the salary cap with the release of free safety Darryl Williams went right to Frerotte, with a little more.

"I don't think it's a good idea where one guy is making more than the other guy," Frerotte said. "After what Coach LeBeau told me, I was just looking for fairness and they were fair. I don't think this has to be a

malicious competition. I've been in some different situations and Jon's a great player and we both have a job to do and I know we've got a lot of respect for each other."

In the 6-3, 225-pound Frerotte, the Bengals are getting a nine-year veteran who has a history of throwing the ball down field and producing points. Those are two traits the Bengals desperately seek after two seasons they have averaged less than 13 points per game and just 5.2 yards per pass.

Frerotte hasn't started regularly since 1997, when he threw 17 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in 13 games for the Redskins. But here is a guy who went to the Pro Bowl with Washington in 1996,

recorded the second biggest passing day in Detroit history with 375 yards in 1999, and rung up a Denver-record 462 passing yards against San Diego in 2000. He thinks his fourth team can have similar firepower.

The Bengals also like the fact he's one year removed from that stretch he pinch-hit for Griese in five straight games and led the Broncos to 30 points per game.

"He has been productive and he got them up and down the field well," said Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski. "He managed the offense efficiently and made some big plays for them."

Frerotte reports Friday to minicamp four months after he underwent reconstructive surgery on his throwing shoulder, which involved transplanting a tendon from his left elbow. Although Frerotte didn't throw a ball over 20 yards at last week's PBS workout, Bratkowski thought his arm strength was excellent.

"I threw 150 balls yesterday," Frerotte said. "Long routes. Deep posts. I feel great."

Of course, the big question is if he can put together a long stretch after coming off the bench for so long. But he looks at Bengals running back Corey Dillon and sees a decorated past.

Frerotte went to the Pro Bowl with Redskins running back Terry Allen. And in Frerotte's 4-2 relief job of Griese in 2000, Broncos running back Mike Anderson broke Dillon's single-game rookie rushing against New Orleans while Frerotte rung up a passer rating of 132 in a 38-23 victory.

"You've got a back like Corey Dilllon and you can do so many things in the passing game," Frerotte said. "When you can play action like that and those linebackers are really creeping in on you, you can really throw it down the middle."

The Bengals have admired Frerotte's ability to throw the ball down field for a long time. He brings a career average of seven yards per attempt (7.02) to a team that hasn't had that number since Jeff Blake started the last nine games of the 1994 season with a 7.95 average. Blake is the last starting Bengals quarterback to break six yards per pass with 6.86 in 1999.

Kitna's 5.5 average in '01 was last and the only one under 6 in an AFC that had six quarterbacks (Steve McNair, Peyton Manning, Mark Brunell, Kordell Stewart, Jay Fiedler, Trent Green) with at least seven yards per throw.

The Bengals are also counting on improvement from Kitna. In the last two games, his average was 6.5 in wins over Pittsburgh and Tennessee.

Frerotte joked about his career average of seven yards per throw, noting Broncos coach Mike Shanahan's ball-possession, West Coast style: "And that's still after two years in Denver."

Frerotte shouldn't have too much trouble picking up Bratkowski's scheme, which has similar vertical routes and number calls that he had in Washington. Those Redskins, with Norv Turner drawing the plays, loved to go deep. Frerotte still has fond memories of wide receiver Henry Ellard.

"I never threw a pass to him that didn't go for a first down," Frerotte said. "That's my favorite stat. I haven't really seen these (receivers), but I know Peter Warrick caught 70 balls and Darnay Scott gets down the field in a hurry. I know they've got talent."

Frerotte could have come to Cincinnati last year for the deal that Kitna signed 36 hours later, but he opted to go back to Denver. Yet, another year on the bench ate at him.

"It doesn't feel very good to watch," Frerotte said. "If I went back to Denver, I'd be right back where I was after this year. Who knows how this will work out here? I hope I'm here for a long time."

That's why he wanted the one-year deal. If it doesn't work out, he can look elsewhere and not be tied into a minimum-salary contract if he sits on the bench. It works for the Bengals, too, because they didn't want to tie up future salary caps with an overpaid backup quarterback.

Frerotte isn't surprised to hear Kitna is disappointed ("I've been in his spot,") and Bratkowski admitted the ideal situation is to have a "clear-cut starter," at quarterback.

"But when you struggle offensively like we did, things like this are going to happen," Bratkowski said. "When you have things happen that aren't even all the quarterback's fault, you re going to have situations like this. It's just the facts when you don't score and turn it over."

The decision to leave Denver isn't an easy one for Frerotte, his wife Ann, and three children who are six years old or younger. They like the schools and their home and the prospect of pulling up stakes is daunting.

But the fact Cincinnati is a five-hour drive to their families in the Pittsburgh area is a big plus.

"Everyone in our family is excited about it," Frerotte said. "And they will be able to help us while we're deciding what to do, buy, rent, or whatever we end up doing."

But in the end, there was one reason the deal was done.

"Yeah, pretty much," Frerotte said. "It's about getting the chance to play."

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