Gus takes Bengals' bus

8-26-02, 11:25 a.m.

Updated: 8-26-02, 2:10 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Gus Frerotte became the man Monday in ending a Bengals quarterback debate that has raged since Drew Bledsoe missed the Patriots Super Bowl parade back in February.

With much less fanfare at his Monday noon news conference, Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau tapped Frerotte to start the Sept. 8 regular-season opener against the Chargers at Paul Brown Stadium. He becomes the fifth different Opening Day quarterback since Neil O'Donnell opened a 3-13 season in 1998.

Frerotte, 31, took the controls like a stoic nine-year veteran who has steered two different teams to the playoffs as a starter and a backup.

Jon Kitna, the deposed incumbent, graciously said his ideal situation is he never takes a snap in 2002.

Akili Smith doubted he would rise any higher than No. 3 any time soon after the Monday morning skills session in which he played safety.

LeBeau namd Kitna No. 2, but said he would be comfortable putting Kitna or Smith in the game. But Smith isn't buying it.

"I don't think I ever had a chance for the job. I thank God I was able to play well and kind of silence some things around here, throughout the NFL, and throughout the organization," said Smith, who led all the quarterbacks with seven pre-season scoring drives. "I showed I can play quarterback in this league.

"People are saying, 'Akili didn't play against the first team,' and a lot of people are complaining I played against the second and third team. Everybody's making excuses, and I think that's all B.S. Nobody mentioned I'm in there with second- and third-teamers."

LeBeau noted Frerotte is the only one who had a passer rating in triple digits in the three pre-season games. He also observed that Frerotte had a higher completion percentage and a greater yards per catch and yards per pass average than Kitna or Smith.

But LeBeau said he based his decision on his experience of 40-plus years in the NFL as a cornerback and defensive coach.

It is also Frerotte's first Opening Day start since 1998, when he hurt his shoulder in the third quarter of Washington's 31-24 loss to the Giants and lost the job.

"A lot of hard work," said Frerotte of the intervening four years. "My life in the NFL has been an uphill battle. It's always been that way. . .My hard work throughout my career has paid off. I've been a lot of places and seen a lot of things. There's not very much that bothers me. If I have a bad day, I'm going to come back the next day and play again."

Like O'Donnell, Frerotte is a playoff-run tested quarterback who has a history of not throwing more interceptions than touchdowns during a full season. His career turnover ratio (69 touchdowns to 59 interceptions) and arm strength proved to be the difference in his competition that unseated Kitna following a 6-10 season.

I don't think last year had anything to do with it," Kitna said. "I thought it was a fair competition, You're disappointed you're not the guy, but I

don't think it was unfairly ruled or a pre-determined thing.

"That would be the ideal thing, that I don't play a snap all year," Kitna said. "Two things have to happen if I play this year. Gus has to get hurt and I have never wished that on anybody. Or, we have to be struggling and I don't want that. So I'd rather not play. Will I be ready? Yes."

Kitna, coming off a 12-22 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a AFC-high 13 fumbles, knew he was in a tough race when LeBeau courted Frerotte heavily the week after the NFL Draft. Frerotte's wife, Ann, drove with her husband from their Pittsburgh-area home for a workout and dinner that resulted in Frerotte signing a one-year contract May 1 for $1.4 million in bonus and salary with incentives that matched Kitna's.

There were suggestions that Frerotte emerged immediately as the favorite of management and LeBeau, with Kitna's major selling point his knowledge of offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski's system.

But Jim Lippincott, the club's director of football operations, said nothing was decided until training camp began to take shape.

"It was a good competition, I think it just came down to Gus giving us the best chance to win," Lippincott said. "His arm strength, his accuracy, his decisiveness all played into it. The argument that he doesn't know the system as well as Jon was a viable argument back in May, but not now. It's not going to take a nine-year guy who has been with other teams all that long to pick it up."

Frerotte threw two interceptions in the first two pre-season games, but came back last Saturday night in the 31-23 loss to the Saints to have the most productive passing game by a Bengals quarterback in the preseason with 157 yards on 12 of 18 passing for a touchdown in 23 snaps.

In his 27 snaps against New Orleans, Kitna flashed the traits that troubled the Bengals during the offseason. After a flawless first two games, he underthrew Ron Dugans for an interception on the game's first series. Although he led the Bengals to a field goal on the next drive, his fumbled snap lost four yards.

The working number on Frerotte is his career yards per attempt of 7.02. Some have tried to downplay the stat, but the simple truth is the Bengals haven't been near that number since Jeff Blake's 6.86 in 1999. In this decade, the Bengals haven't had a quarterback break 6, and Kitna's 5.54 average last year contributed to a AFC-low 4.9 yards per pass. Only Carolina's 4.7 was lower in the NFL.

Frerotte, a seventh-round draft pick out of Tulsa by the Redskins in 1994, hasn't started regularly since 1997, when he threw 17 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in 13 games for the Redskins. But he did go 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.

In that 2000 season, he pinch-hit for Brian Griese in five straight games and led the Broncos to 30 points per game. In that Nov. 19-Dec. 17 stretch, Denver went 4-1 and secured a Wild Card spot in the playoffs.

"(No matter) the terminology," said Frerotte of his new assignment, "you still have to hand it off left and hand it off right, and you drop back to throw the rock."

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