Gus to end fuss Monday? Or Kitna again?

8-25-02, 6:05 a.m. Updated:
8-25-2, 6:05 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Gus Frerotte gazed at the media horde around his locker Saturday night and smiled.

"You guys," he said, "are way more nervous than I am."

Frerotte very well could have ended the suspense of the Bengals quarterbacks derby when he had the best night of any of the passers this preseason during a 31-23 loss to the Saints in the Paul Brown Stadium opener. Press box, talk show, and conventional wisdom hours after the game has Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau tapping Frerotte over Jon Kitna to start Opening Day in Monday's news conference, but all LeBeau would say is he plans to make his decision public Monday.

In four series that spanned the second and third quarters Saturday, Frerotte zipped to a 12-for-18 night for 157 yards, a touchdown, no interceptions, and a reminder just how strong and accurate his arm is.

"You have to make this decision based on everything you've seen, going back to minicamp," LeBeau said. "We charted all three of these guys and there wasn't a big difference in percentage points and overall performance, and you have to factor in dropped balls. . .I think they have all done a pretty good job. We'll evaluate them again and go with who in my opinion gives us the best chance of winning. . .Now its on me to pick one of the three and lets go."

The club has been criticized in some quarters for splitting the snaps so evenly and giving third-stringer Akili Smith all of the second-half snaps until Saturday night. But Bengals President Mike Brown said Sunday he feels the man LeBeau names will be prepared for the Sept. 8 opener at PBS against the Chargers.

"I have no regrets the way it was done," Brown said. "We had a good competition and we did what we had to do to mske the call. That's the most important thing."

Jim Lippincott, the club's director of football operations, said Sunday that LeBeau's decision has come down to a virtual dead heat with not two, but three guys.

"Too close to call," Lippincott said. "The surprising thing is how well Akili played. It's the best he's ever looked here. I'll never forget that last game he played for Oregon Christmas Day and he never looked like that here until he began to look like it this summer."

What LeBeau saw Saturday is that Frerotte's effort coincided with Kitna's worst outing of the preseason that featured the two things he has avoided this summer after last year's 22 interceptions and AFC-leading 13 fumbles. Kitna threw his first interception of the preseason when he underthrew Ron Dugans on the game's first series, and he lost four yards on the next series when he bobbled a snap.

And, in another grim reminder of the Bengals' woes in the red zone last season, Kitna could only get field goals despite getting to the Saints 1 and Saints 7 on two of his three drives.

"We got field goals instead of touchdowns and that was the difference in the game," said Kitna, who completed just five of 14 passes for 101 yards. "I put it out there. Did I have my best game? No. But I went out there, played hard, came back from the interception and was able to move the offense a little bit."

Some will suggest LeBeau engineered the results to get what he wanted by keeping in Frerotte until he generated a touchdown with 1:20 left in the third quarter after Kitna left early in the second quarter.

But Kitna (27) had four more snaps than Frerotte (23) in one less series. When rookie left tackle Levi Jones struggled in the second quarter

and let Frerotte get hit a few times, Richmond Webb replaced him at the beginning of the third quarter, but Jones said that move was "pre-scripted."

"Jon had a couple of long drives in there and (at halfime) it had ended up Gus had only had about seven or eight (actually) 10 plays," LeBeau said. "So I wanted to balance it out a little bit."

The derby may have come down to two throws. On the game's first drive, with the Bengals facing a third-and-eight and Kitna working out of the shotgun at his own 49, he floated a ball under the Saints' zone and rookie cornerback Keyuo Craver stepped in front of Dugans at the Saints 33 for the interception.

Fast forward to the next quarter. On a first down from the New Orleans 46, Frerotte executed a play action fake, stepped to his right so he could see, and whipped an out pattern across to the other sideline to wide receiver Chad Johnson for a 16-yard gain.

It's the kind of throw Kitna's arm can't give them. Kitna did offer the first two passes of 20 yards or more to the wide receivers this preseason with throws of 28 and 29 yards to Peter Warrick and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, respectively. But it was Frerotte who got them into the end zone when he spotted wide receiver Danny Farmer working successfully on linebacker Brian Cox and jammed in an 11-yard touchdown pass.

It was the kind of play that dispelled the notion that Frerotte needs more time to learn the offense as well as Kitna.

"It was a little out route in the middle and Brian didn't play it very well," Frerotte said. "Danny is who I was going to first. If he hadn't been there, I probably would have thrown it away."

Kitna also showed why his knowledge of the scheme is giving him heavy consideration. He let it be known he has a good grasp of the Bengals' no huddle offense when offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski called for it on the second series. He produced the big plays to Warrick and Houshmandzadeh out of it and drove the Bengals 82 yards to the doorstep. But there was no touchdown when the NFL's top-ranked running game couldn't spring Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon on back-to-back plays from the Saints 1.

"I always come back to what Warren Moon told me when I made my first NFL start," said Kitna of that game in 1997 game against the Raiders. "He said the true test of a quarterback is how he handles adversity. For the first time this preseason, things didn't go the right way for me. I had the interception and I had the fumble, but I came back and made those long passes.

"It was the first time really we had a chance to go down field this year," Kitna said. "(The Saints) don't play it like the Colts play it with that deep zone that doesn't let you throw it deep."

When Kitna got the Bengals to the Saints 7 on the next series, Warrick got separation on the cornerback as he headed to the flag, but Kitna overthrew him in the end zone.

Kitna did show the presence of mind to get rid of the ball on a blitz and even though he was called for intentional grounding, it allowed rookie Travis Dorsch to hit a 36-yard field goal.

Frerotte had the longest throw of the night (and preseason) because he put the ball in Dugans' stride as he ran away from his man who fell down for 46 yards running across the middle.

"I felt pretty comfortable out there," Frerotte said. "I think they wanted to see how I came out of halftime and it felt good. I wish I had the one throw back, the one on fourth down, but other than that, I felt good."

Frerotte faced a fourth-and-one from the Saints 25 on his third series and rolled to his right after a play-action fake. After throwing an incompletion behind Houshmandzadeh, he said, "I probably should have run it."

Warrick didn't help him on his first two series when he dropped what looked to be catchable balls on third down over the middle.

But all the charting is over. All the analysis and comparisons are done. There is finally an answer on the way for Sept. 8.

"It will be good to finally get it cleared up and move on," said right tackle Willie Anderson, who is like everyone else at this point. "I have no idea who it is. But I'm staying positive with it. Who ever it is going to be able is going to help us win."

Frerotte and Kitna have not hid the fact they've been mystified by being kept in the dark about each step of the process. They weren't told how long they were going to play Saturday night and at least twice they found out who was starting from the media.

Both planned to spend Sunday's off day with their families. Frerotte said it would be a blow if he doesn't get the call Monday. Kitna said it is God's will.

"Chilling. Family," Kitna said of his Sunday with a smile.

Frerotte, who said he'll back who is ever the starter for the good of the team, smiled, too.

"I'll read about it on the web site or in the papers," he said.

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