1-22-01, 10:15 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
MOBILE, Ala. _ Kurt Kittner began his Monday getting strip-searched by the NFL.
They had already done it to him two weeks ago at the East-West Shrine Game on the West Coast. Now here at the Senior Bowl on the Gulf Coast, the Illinois quarterback appeared as accustomed to a hotel ballroom full of eyes as he was leading the Illini to another fourth-quarter comeback.
'All you can say is there it is,'' said Kittner with an easy Mid-western shrug. "That's what I see every day in the mirror.''
Which is where the Bengals have been looking at their Draft Day disasters for quarterbacks for the last decade. The jury is still out on Akili Smith, but it's been a grinding trial in which he is no closer to being an established NFL quarterback (not to mention a franchise quarterback) than he was when the Bengals took him with the third pick in the 1999 draft.
So what better way to observe the 10th anniversary of the David Klingler (sixth pick in the 1992 draft) Debacle than a shift in philosophy?
Don't take the quarterback first and rush him because his salary cap number is a ticking time bomb. Take him where he belongs and when you need him and ease him in.
Which could be Kittner if he's there in the second round. It's a nice fit. After all, the last time the Bengals picked a non-first round quarterback from Illinois (Ken Anderson), it worked out pretty well.
In fact, Kittner has already been to Paul Brown Stadium to watch almost namesake Jon Kitna quarterback the Bengals in last month's 16-13 overtime loss to Tampa Bay. Kittner came with a couple of Illinois players to watch old teammate Neil Rackers kick two field goals for the Bengals.
''Ït was kind of freaky because I bumped into another guy I played with at Illinois just as we were both walking into the gate," Kittner said. "I would love to play down there. I know some of the guys. All I'm looking to do is get a chance to compete so I have a chance at playing this year."
Karma and Kittner, quarterbacking the North this week, would get that shot in Cincinnati sooner than later.
"He's not a top guy coming out this year," said Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski. "But he's got some skills and he's got some qualities that give him a time and place to be drafted."
So does LSU's Rohan Davey, working for the South this week and a guy NFL teams could value in the third round. So could guys who might get drafted on the second day, such as the
North's David Garrard, from Jeff Blake's old school at East Carolina.
''As we've found out," said Bengals President Mike Brown, 'there's no science when it comes to drafting a quarterback.''
And if you're a quarterback prospect at the first practice of an all-star game, it's more like remedial reading. New center. New receivers. New routes. Jim Zorn, the Seahawks quarterbacks coach from Mike Holmgren's staff that is leading the North practices, spent part of Monday just trying to get Kittner from, "sinking into," the center before taking the snap.
"It's a giveaway," Zorn said. "Those are just some of the little things we were going over today. Not even mechanical. Just to make him more efficient."
Zorn liked the way Kittner took control of the huddle and had some pocket presence about him during seven-on-seven and team drills. He said Kittner, Garrard and Sam Houston State's Josh McCown, "are all going to do well in this game."
But what about playing in the NFL?
''Too early to tell," Zorn said.
Which is why the Bengals didn't exactly strap vital signs to Kittner while they watched him Monday. Oh, Bratkowski looked behind the huddle as much as he did in front of it to see how Kittner interacted with players and coaches.
But he can't get as much out of this game as he did last year. In his last act as the Steelers receivers coach, he coached the North receivers and was so impressed with Oregon State's Chad Johnson in the meeting room and on the field that he recommended the Bengals take him in the second round.
And Brown watched how the spiral came out of Kittner's hand and if the release was quick enough.
''Áll three of these guys have that,'' Brown said. "But I've seen guys with picture perfect throwing motions not do a thing and guys who just slung it out there succeed."
Then there's Anderson, the Bengals quarterbacks coach from Batavia, Ill., who parlayed form out of a textbook into numbers in the Bengals' record book. He has been ripped for his failure to translate those skills into developing Klingler and Smith, but he's had plenty of help in that department. Smith has even said he learned more from Anderson this past year because the coach also wasn't saddled with coordinator duties.
"This is just the first step," said Anderson Monday. "You get a feel for some things here, but you get a better idea when you spend more time with him at the (NFL scouting) combine and then when you go to the campus visits you really get a feel for him.''
The most valuable part of Bratkowski's evaluation comes when he gets back to Cincinnati and he watches the tape of Kittner's games.
"There you can see what he's trying to do in his system with his receivers," Bratkowski said. "These games are good because you want to get all the information you can get. But it's mostly intangible stuff."
The Bengals like those when it comes to Kittner. Brown spent about 15 minutes at one Bengals' practice picking Rackers' brain on Kittner. Rackers emphasized his cool under fire and while Brown knows Kittner and Rackers are close (Kittner went to Rackers'wedding last summer), that still counts for something.
"Sure, they're friends," Brown said. "But it's good to know someone he knows and played with calls him a good guy. He's got gumption. Desire."
Duke Tobin, the Bengals director of pro/college personnel who grew up in Chicago, has seen enough Kittner tape and talked to enough people at Illinois to know what he sees.
"He's got average arm strength, but there are plenty of quarterbacks in the NFL who win with average arm strength," Tobin said. "He's not a great athlete, but he's a functional athlete. He's a competitor."
Kittner knows he has to walk a fine line at these games. He did it two weeks ago and he's trying to do it here.
''I know the big question is my arm,'' Kittner said. "But I don't want to try and knock guys over with my ball, too. I had a good week of practice two weeks ago, but I had fun. I relaxed. It's a game. Yes, you want to win, but you want to enjoy it, too.''
If it sounds like Kittner has a good head on his shoulders, he does. Zorn liked him because he did what he was told and because he absorbed a lot of NFL-type stuff.
''If you ask him how he did today, he'll say he was absolutely terrible,'' Zorn said. 'That's because he was exposed to all these new things. He wants to do well and he didn't feel right on some things."
Zorn led the quarterbacks through a drill in which they shuffled their feet as if scrambling and then had to throw on the run to the left and right.
"I was dragging my feet,'' Kittner said. 'I've got to pick them up."
But Kittner knows what the scouts want to see.
"They want to see how you adjust,'' Kittner said. "They want to see how you listen to coaching."
So the key days for Kittner will be Wednesday and Thursday. Is he still sinking behind center? Is he still dragging his feet on the rollouts? If he's a different, better guy Thursday than Monday, it's big.
"This week of practice is huge,'' Kittner said. "It's really all huge. The combine. The individual workout. I'm looking to get better so I'm improving in everything I do before the draft. I'm not thinking about when I'll go. I just want to improve.''
After the ballroom show and practice, both teams bused back to their hotel to change for a media dinner at the Battleship Alabama museum. After he downed steak and chicken with North teammates Josh Thornhill (Michigan State linebacker) and Tracey Wistrom (Nebraska tight end) and renewed an acquaintance with one of the South's running backs, UCLA's Deshaun Foster, Kittner watched some of his mates get in a wild five-minute ride on a flight simulator.
But he had no time. He had to fly to a CNN/SI interview and then the bus was headed back to the hotel.
"Tired," Kittner said. "Just go back and sleep. A morning practice tomorrow."
It's a new breed of player now prepped for the cycle of all-star game- combine-personal workout-draft. If the Bengals take Kittner in the second round, he'll be their first player ever born in the '80s. He never heard of Anderson and he wasn't born when Zorn took the Seahawks out of expansion.
But trying to find a quarterback is as old as the game itself.
"It's the first step,'' Zorn said. "Right now, he's lucky he can call the play in the huddle. Give him a few days."
That's about all the Bengals have when it comes to solving their decade-old problem.