Kitna hopes he doesn't have to play

3-2-04, 5:15 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Maybe the thing that gnaws at Jon Kitna the most is that the last time the Bengals tried this, they are still using tweezers to pick out the shrapnel from a 2-14 mess.

Remember 2001, his first season in Cincinnati? Despite a seven-game losing streak in the middle of a 6-10 year, Kitna led the Bengals to their best first half in years at 4-3 and ended the season throwing for 751 yards in two victories.

But even as Kitna pleaded for the Bengals to stick with him for continuity sake, they went out and got Gus Frerotte on the free-agent market and gave him the job even though they gave the bulk of the pre-season game snaps to Akili Smith. By the time Kitna got hauled back into the starting lineup, the 2002 season was already in embers at 0-4.

Now after taking the Bengals to the cusp of the playoffs in 2003, Kitna. . .

"You feel like you're not forced into having to change much to continue the process," said an obviously disappointed Kitna, the news he had known for a month now finally public. "Offensively (we were) in the top (13) and did some things people said we couldn't do both individually and as an offensive football team. Just like two years ago, we're not going to have that opportunity to continue that with the same corps of players. They like some of the other things that Carson can do, and hopefully it works out for the best."

Read: They like his ability to get it down field and how he seemingly popped out of a computer printout from the blue link "NFL Quarterback Prototype."

But head coach Marvin Lewis went to great lengths Monday in insisting that people not read too much into it and that the Palmer experiment wouldn't blow up the Bengals in a setback as they bid to make the playoffs this season. Kitna, it is assumed, is the insurance policy so the season doesn't spin into a 2-14 re-make.

"We can't allow one person to be the reason we're losing football games," Lewis said. "Carson is starting out with the ball like Jon did last year. Let's not get anymore ahead of it than that."

But Kitna didn't want to hear about any doors being left open. He figures Lewis had slammed that shut a month ago when he told him his decision.

"As long as they have a No .1 draft pick," Kitna said, "that kid is going to play when he can play. . . Two years ago, starting at 0-4 and all that is not a great position to come in. I don't want that to happen. Marvin has to say that. For me to play at all, it would be temporary."

Whether that means Kitna wants to stay here beyond this season is another question. What is certain is that few athletes in any sport anywhere nowadays would have handled the move as well and as graciously as Kitna handled it. He is from that era before "Playmakers." This is more, "Leave it to Kitna," or "Kitna Knows Best.'

Here's a guy who was told of a move he vehemently disagreed with a month ago and yet he kept quiet about it because his coach asked him to.

No press conference outburst. No back-door-off-the-record stuff in a campaign to get released. On Monday, he even apologized to a reporter for not calling back on another subject because he figured the question would come up.

Indeed, the A Number 1 reason the move was made now is probably because they knew Kitna wouldn't declare war. He's not happy, but he's also not going to "backstab," Palmer. Palmer knows, because Kitna already told him late last week after Lewis told Palmer his plans.

"He couldn't have been more supportive about it," Palmer said. "He just said, 'We knew this was going to happen. Me and my wife and my family completely support you. We're excited for you and I don't want there to be any hard feelings between us.' I knew there wouldn't be. I knew Jon would handle the situation like a pro. He handled it like Jon would handle it."

Palmer found himself wondering how awkward and ugly it could be if Kitna wasn't on board. As it is, this is a tough moment for a proud, fierce competitor. He bristled when it was mentioned that Lewis' desire is not to play the richest players, but the best players.

"I'm disappointed," Kitna said, maintaining that he feels he's better than Palmer. "I must not be as good as I think am."

But Kitna admitted 2004 isn't 2002, simply because, "Marvin has changed pretty much the way things are done around there," and coaches and players are insisting the playoffs are still in the picture despite an inexperienced quarterback.

"Why not?" asked right tackle Willie Anderson. "Last year we had a new coach and won six more games. In the NFL, change is inevitable. Over the next four to five years as he develops, it's going to be the job of the offensive line to make sure he's protected. We all have to step up to make that happen. Not just on the line, but everywhere on offense and defense, too."

Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski points to how the Ravens won the AFC North even though rookie Kyle Boller started most of their games at quarterback. Yes, they had 2,000-yard rusher Jamal Lewis and one of the NFL's top defenses. But it did happen, and the goal is still the playoffs and not a rebuilding 6-10. Bratkowski knows that will take some special Xs and Os.

"The most important thing Coach (Lewis) said," Bratkowski said, "is we're not going to let the position get in the way of our winning games. It puts some responsibility on me and the offensive coaches to put him in a position to succeed through the structure we're going to give him. (The timing) gives us the ability to plan to do things in the months ahead."

Palmer isn't thinking playoffs. Just wins.

"I guess I'm young and naïve," he said. "I go in thinking we can win every game. And that's the kind of team we have."

Kitna, no longer young and naïve, hopes he does.

"I hope I don't have to play another down for the Cincinnati Bengals," Kitna said. "That's the reality. Because for me to play again means either the team is doing badly, or Carson got hurt, and I don't want either one of those to happen. I would never wish that on anybody."

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