Gus-sing up a start

8-15-02, 8:30 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

GEORGETOWN, Ky. _ Gus Frerotte simply can't remember the last time he was the starting quarterback in a pre-season game. But he can tell you the last time it was as critical as his start Saturday night in Indianapolis for the Bengals.

Naturally, that Aug. 16, 1996 game in Washington was against the Bengals. Frerotte had finished the 1995 season as Heath Schuler's backup in their two-year derby.

And although Frerotte didn't play particularly well in the Bengals' 28-7 victory, Shuler got hurt on Opening Day and Frerotte went on to a Pro Bowl season.

Omen?

"I'm going to do what I've been doing," Frerotte said here earlier this

week. "Get the ball to the right place to the right people on time."

Although many think Frerotte has the inside track with management and the coaches, Jon Kitna's superb camp has made this a pretty even derby heading into the game against the Colts.

It is Kitna's knowledge of the scheme and receivers, and his flawless play in the scrimmage and the opener, vs. Frerotte's arm and athleticism. It is anyone's spot at the moment, and wide receiver Michael Westbrook has no idea who the starter will be.

He has been impressed with Kitna, and Akili Smith, and he has also been impressed with his old friend from Washington, Frerotte. Westbrook, out with a broken left wrist, played with Frerotte that night in '96 and sees a better quarterback than the one who went to the Pro Bowl.

"His arm is still the same, he always had a real accurate arm, a great ball," Westbrook said. "But he has a lot more confidence in himself and he's more poised. That might be because the different teams he's been with. I know the coaches here like him. (In Washington) it was a different world. He's older. If you stay in this league as long as he has, you can't help but get better."

Bengals President Mike Brown says Frerotte has the Bengals' best arm since Boomer Esiason. Westbrook said when arrived for his June workout a month before he signed that Frerotte would pick apart defenses with protection. He reiterated it here this week.

"If you protect him, he could take a team to the Super Bowl. He's hard to stop," Westbrook said. "That's what his accuracy does. But I don't know if he's going to get the job or not. All the guys have played well."

Brown, who fiercely covets quarterbacks, is heartened by all three, saying, "It's the best we've looked there in some time," and he's not altogether sure this will be a one-man team.

"Maybe it will work out eventually during the season that we see more than one, for whatever reason. Injury, or a downturn for somebody."

Brown admits the club still has no "established bell cow quarterback." But he doesn't rule out any of the three evolving into one even though Kitna and Frerotte have banged around the league.

"Favre didn't do it in Atlanta and Warner didn't do it in Green Bay and sometimes that's the way it goes," Brown said. "I don't know how it's going to turn out, but I feel better about that position."

Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau said before Thursday night's practice that he won't decide what to do with his quarterbacks right after Saturday's game, when Frerotte plays the first quarter, Kitna plays the second, and Smith and Scott Covington work in the second half.

LeBeau said he could name an Opening Day starter as early as Monday, but he wouldn't decide that until watching film Sunday. Or, he could decide Sunday to let the derby go into the third game, which is the Aug. 24 home opener at Paul Brown Stadium against the Saints.

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