12-4-03, 6:45 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
The first Bengals quarterback to win AFC Offensive Player of the Month won it during a season he led Cincinnati to the playoffs, and Boomer Esiason thinks the latest man to do it can do the same.
"All I can tell you is that Jon Kitna is on a hot streak," Esiason said Wednesday from New York. "He's playing with such confidence and the most important thing is that the people around him are playing with confidence, they're in shape and in condition, and they're making plays when they count. No question I think they can do it. We're going to find out quickly. Over the next three weeks, they play three very good defenses, so now the money is on the table. We're in money time now."
Kitna has been the Bengals' money man in a 7-2 stretch that has pulled the Bengals into a first-place tie with the Ravens in the AFC North. His 22 touchdown passes trail only the Colts' Peyton Manning in the NFL and puts him near a pace to tie Ken Anderson's club record of 29 in 1981. He has fueled the seven victories with 18 touchdowns and one interception, and has gained the enormous respect of Esiason, a member of CBS' Sunday studio team for NFL coverage.
"What I like is what the coaches are saying there," Esiason said. "That he's in complete control. There's no question who is in command, and you know how important
that is for a quarterback. That's what you need. He's leading his receivers, he's throwing the ball on time and in stride. That ball he threw to Peter Warrick against the Chiefs was thing of beauty. The ball he threw to (Matt) Schobel (for the win against Pittsburgh) was nice and Schobel made a heck of a catch."
Esiason was named AFC Offensive Player of the Month in September of 1988 when he began his march to the NFL MVP award, but Esiason says it's too early to tell who gets it this year. As for the Pro Bowl, he thinks a lot of it will depend on what happens Sunday in Baltimore.
"The three guys in front of him look to be (Steve) McNair, (Peyton) Manning, and Trent Green," Esiason said. "They're all having excellent years and their teams are going to the playoffs."
Kitna also received a Player of the Month the one time he led a team to the playoffs, winning it in October of 1999 while playing for the Seattle Seahawks. He's also the third Bengals quarterback to win it, joining Esiason and Jeff Blake in November of 1994.
During the month, Kitna completed 100 of 166 attempts for 1,147 yards, for 11 touchdowns and three interceptions.
"It is very humbling, and all it means is that your team played well, and you won a lot of football games," Kitna said. "That's the gist of it. When the team plays well, and you're doing well as an organization, then the quarterback is going to get a lot more credit than he deserves, and that is certainly the case here."
Kitna is the sixth Bengal to win AFC Player of the Month honors since the award was instituted in 1986. The last Bengal to win an AFC Player of the Month award was running back Brandon Bennett, who took the special teams honor in November last season for kick returns. The two Bengals defensive players honored were nose tackle Tim Krumrie in November of 1988 and strong safety David Fulcher in December of 1989.
Esiason praised Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis for sticking with Kitna right when he arrived as coach back in January and during early in the season when the club started 0-3. Lewis said Wednesday he didn't think the team could take another quarterback controversy after Kitna had finished 2002 so strongly.
"I had prepared to coach against Jon in the past, and I felt like I knew what kind of player he was," Lewis said. "The commitment I made to Jon was, 'Don't be concerned about all the other things that you are going to hear about. It's your job, you're the returning quarterback. Anybody coming in here has to beat you out.' I told him we weren't going to bring someone in and say 'He's the quarterback, and we're going to kick you to the curb.' My view of the pulse of the team was that they couldn't withstand going on that roller coaster again."
Esiason is enjoying Kitna's run, particularly the leverage it gives him in the studio with his counterparts as the Bengals bid for their first playoffs since 1990.
"He's been terrific. He's been fun to watch. They all have," Esiason said. "Now I can finally have something to say to these other guys who are always raving about how great their teams are."