Kitna ends the day as the man

4-21-02, 7:30 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

With Buffalo's acquisition of Drew Bledsoe and the Bengals' decision to pass Illinois quarterback Kurt Kittner in the fourth round Sunday, Cincinnati's off-season quarterback saga officially ended with incumbent Jon Kitna still No. 1.

"That's exciting to hear," said Kitna Sunday night. "I can't wait for minicamp to get started and not have every pass and every snap scrutinized with the coaches saying, 'I wonder which quarterback will have the upper hand today?' I've never gone into training camp as the clear-cut guy in my career, so this is exciting news to me. I'm real anxious to get this thing going in year two."

With Akili Smith's rehabbing hamstring still a question mark, Bengals President Mike Brown said they will still pursue a veteran free-agent quarterback with minicamp set for weekend after next.

First on their list is believed to be Denver's Gus Frerotte, but Brown said who ever it is comes in as a backup.

The Bills lured Bledsoe from the Patriots with a first-round draft pick in next year's NFL Draft, but Brown has no second thoughts about backing off Bledsoe last month.

The fact that the Bengals couldn't fit Bledsoe's $5 million salary under the salary cap without drastic cuts, the fact the Patriots were demanding a first-rounder, and the fact Cincinnati was told several times Bledsoe didn't want to be a Bengal were all elements that figured in the decision.

It's believed the Bengals offered the Pats as high as a second-round pick for Bledsoe, but Brown refused to confirm any offers.

"At the time we were in the thing, we were quickly put off by the report he didn't want to come here and we were told that not once, but two and three times," Brown said. "So we weren't going to pursue somebody who didn't want to be here."

Asked about the conflicting reports out of Boston that said Bledsoe wouldn't mind coming to Cincinnati, Brown said, "We were told by somebody who should know."

Now Kitna, who turns 30 the day before the Bengals' third game of the season, tries to avenge a year in which he finished as the NFL's lowest rated passer with 12 touchdowns and 22 interceptions.

But his performance in the Bengals' six victories (seven touchdowns, four interceptions) and his 751-yard effort in the last two games fires some hope.

"I've been around for seven years, so there was a big part of me that wanted to see Drew Bledsoe," said right tackle Willie Anderson. "But there's the other part of me that's been hanging around Jon Kitna for a year and thinks the guy deserves another chance. Another year with these receivers and in the same system, let's see what happens. He got off to a hot start."

The Bengals would have drafted Oregon quarterback Joey Harrington if he had slid to the 10th pick in the first round. But their draft room was like the rest of the NFL with a split soft-arm-good-intangibles verdict on the guy. Early in the week as Brown culled the club's options at quarterback, he asked offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski to gauge the situation. Even in the face of Harrington, Trent Dilfer and Elvis Grbac, Bratkowski all offseason has been counseling patience with Kitna and the scheme he only installed last year.

"They asked me how I thought Jon and the people around him would perform this year and I said we will see marked improvement," Bratkowski said.

All of which boosts Kitna's confidence, which has most likely been buffeted by an offseason in which every quarterback but Virgil Carter has been ticketed to Cincinnati. But Brown said after the draft, "Jon's going to get the shot."

Kitna said, "I could say it wouldn't matter, but it does. To be able to go into a camp like that for me is very exciting. To have somebody say, 'You're the guy, you're the leader, let's get this thing going,' is great.'

"I think we've got six unbelievable receivers who can catch the ball anywhere on the field and a great running back. I say let's go back at it a second time."

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