Kitna can go home again

4-20-04, 11:50 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Jon Kitna now knows he can win big games, lead a team to the brink of the playoffs, and put up Pro Bowl numbers.

And that's why agreeing to be Carson Palmer's backup for the next two seasons became a little easier Tuesday for an intense competitor who has always seen himself as a No. 1 NFL quarterback.

"My wife asked me if was going to be able to live with the fact of the what ifs and my thing is I've proved it to myself," said Kitna after extending his contract by a year through 2005. "I've proved to myself that I can play at the highest level in this league. The competitor side of me has had that answered and that's all that matters, and I'm not going to worry about not playing. I'm looking forward to helping Carson as much as possible."

Even a week ago, it looked like the only resolution to a knotty problem was Kitna's release. But a variety of factors, starting with his family's ministry in Cincinnati and ranging to the Bengals' restructuring of a contract that still gives him $3.3 million this year, led to a deal that may prove to be the most beneficial of a busy offseason and possibly pave the way for the drafting of the third quarterback this weekend.

With Palmer No. 1 and Kitna No. 2 set for two years, now seems to be the time to draft a third to groom as the eventual backup. Veteran Shane Matthews may or may not want to return for a second year as the No. 3.

With their extra picks in the third and fourth rounds, the Bengals could start looking for a guy early or wait to get one later. Michigan's John Navarre and Bowling Green's Josh Harris, who played for the Bengals' coaches in the Senior Bowl, have been projected to go somewhere in the fourth and fifth rounds.

"I'm always talking how I'm not for changing much," Kitna said. "But to make this drastic change to a guy who hasn't taken a snap, at least you've got guy a guy behind him who is well versed in the system and understands Coach Brat (offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski) and his play calling and is used to the style of the guys on the team. I'll be able to help Carson understand how to get certain plays called and certain plays not called."

Kitna makes no bones about it. He wanted the chance to be a No. 1 quarterback and he said the Bengals approached the Chargers and the 49ers "in an effort to accommodate me. But God kept closing doors, and when he did that, we looked at what we had here, and we felt like this is where God wanted us. The only bad thing is not playing, but there are a lot worse things in the world. I love the coaching staff, I look forward to helping Carson, and the No. 1 thing is my wife and I have a great ministry going on the team and among teenagers."

Kitna, a devoted Christian, is one of the club's Bible study leaders and he has already spoken to about 20 youth groups this offseason with about 10 more in the offing. He and wife Jennifer also host a weekly Bible study group of eight teenagers who go to school with their nephew, a Lakota East sophomore.

Kitna is his nephew's guardian and is pleased he doesn't have to disturb his football and basketball career at the school and is giving him a chance to graduate with his class. He is also looking for stability with his three children that are younger than six years old.

"I don't want to drag them all over the country," Kitna said. "I don't want to buy a new house and uproot everybody here. There's no better place for us."

Not only does Kitna's extension give the Bengals a valued locker room leader who has proven can step in and win key games, but it most likely opens up the salary cap a bit so the Bengals can do that reported signing with Broncos defensive tackle Daryl Gardener, fit in that new five-year deal for cornerback Deltha O'Neal, and clear some cap space for the extra draft picks in the second, third, and fourth rounds.

"Dude, I didn't take any less money and they didn't give me any more," Kitna said. "I don't know what it means to the salary cap, but I'm sure there was some kind of an impact."

With Palmer's escalators set to trigger to the $2 million range this year, the Bengals also couldn't keep Kitna's cap number at $4.3 million, the bulk of which came from his $3.3 salary. What teams typically do to shave a salary cap count in an extension is give the amount of the 2004 salary in a bonus-plus-salary and tack on another year so the bonus can be pro-rated over two years in order to lower the cap number.

So, the Bengals probably cut Kitna's cap hit by about half in an effort to get underneath the $80.5 million figure before signing draft picks in July.

KITNA BY THE NUMBERS: In 2003, he had career highs in completions (324), passing yards (3,591), touchdown passes (26), completion percentage (62.3), and passer rating (87.4), as the only NFL quarterback to play every snap.

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