Kitna-Mitchell: Itsthisclose

8-26-01, 8:35 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Jon Kitna left the door open. Akili Smith left it up to the coaches. Dick LeBeau left it up in the air. Scott Mitchell just left.

After the Bengals' punchless 20-10 pre-season loss to the Bills Saturday, that's where the quarterback quandary stood.

But the debate that began last November in Dallas has apparently been decided. LeBeau met with his coaches late Sunday afternoon to debate the Kitna-Mitchell question one last time, but won't announce his starting quarterback for the regular season until he talks to them Monday morning.

Kitna or Mitchell?

Press box wags, conventional wisdom, and good old-fashioned speculation held heading into Saturday that Mitchell, 33, needed to knock out the younger, more mobile and stronger-armed Kitna, 28, with a lights-out effort.

If CW prevails, then Kitna is the guy because both struggled Saturday instead of seizing the moment. Even the Bengals.com Fan Poll predicts LeBeau will name Kitna. But like the news anchors were saying last November, "It's too close to call," and LeBeau won't divulge until Monday's noon news conference.

It most certainly isn't Akili Smith, who told the trainers Sunday morning his sore right shoulder is better. If his arm responds in Monday's long-toss session, Smith could be cleared to practice Wednesday and play in Thursday's pre-season finale against the visiting Colts.

But is it Kitna or Mitchell?

After watching films Sunday, Bengals' officials felt the quarterbacks didn't get a lot of support from the rest of the offense because of assignment errors and route mistakes.

Bengals President Mike Brown thought the camera showed it wasn't all the quarterback's fault.

"No matter who (the quarterback) is," Brown said, "we'll take a step up from where we were last year at this time."

Mitchell threw two interceptions in the first half that translated into 10 points, the Bills' margin of victory. In the second half, Kitna lost one of his two fumbles and couldn't get the Bengals beyond the Buffalo 32.

The Bengals' coaches saw Saturday as a draw, another indication Kitna didn't get knocked out. But offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski, whose presence has helped make Kitna the CW favorite because of their time together in Seattle, has never said who had the slight lead.

Only that the decision would be made off a

cumulative process and not off the last game.

"There were some decisions you would not have wanted to have been made," Bratkowski said. "And there were plenty of problems at other positions that created problems for the quarterback and they always didn't get the help that was needed. It was pretty even in how it was done for most of them."

Everyone saw Mitchell had a touchdown pass dropped by Darnay Scott. The film showed he could have had the moves of Michael Vick and still not escaped a safety created by a miscommunication between left guard Matt O'Dwyer and left tackle Richmond Webb.

The tape also showed Mitchell's second interception, when he tried to hit Scott over the middle, was a blown play from when it was called.

Kitna had similar problems. He played most of his stint behind a back-up line that didn't pass protect as well as the first line. And, for example, on a key third-and-5 pass with 6:08 left in a 20-10 game, Kitna couldn't hook up with receiver Ron Dugans for the first down for a variety of reasons.

It looked like Kitna underthrew Dugans at about the Buffalo 30. But the coaches wish Dugans had run a crisper route and not been so deep. Kitna didn't blame Dugans. He thinks it's just a matter of getting used to his new receivers.

"I was trying to anticipate him when he was coming out of his break and I threw it and he obviously went a couple of yards deeper than I anticipated," Kitna said.

But Kitna emerged extremely upbeat. He knows the big knock on him is his NFL-leading 17 fumbles last season. He recovered one of his two fumbles Saturday and the one he lost came on a blind-side sack.

"I think the biggest thing for me at this point in the season is to be able to see the field," Kitna said. "Noticing coverages, not being surprised by things and I felt like that was a positive for me tonight.

" I think even though sometimes when you get sacked a lot of times it's not your fault, but I have to protect the football," Kitna said. "And that's such a hard thing to do because when you're trying to move, it's hard to keep two hands on the ball. You don't want fumbles. That puts your defense in a bad spot, (so I'm) trying to improve on that."

The Bengals have always liked the fact Kitna can move, but there's no question Mitchell has moved the team when he's been in there the last two games.

Mitchell produced 17 second-half points in Detroit and could have had another 17 against Buffalo in the first half if Scott caught the touchdown and Neil Rackers made a 45-yard field goal.

But if Kitna flashed the scout's knocks on him, so did Mitchell with a wobbly pass on an out pattern to receiver Danny Farmer that got intercepted and nearly run back for a touchdown. Mitchell's arm strength has been questioned by scouts since his Detroit days, when a similar pass ended up in the hands of the Bengals' Corey Sawyer in overtime that gave Cincinnati a win in 1998.

Did Mitchell, who never turns down the media, have a sense of which way it was headed when he quickly left the locker room Saturday without meeting reporters?

Maybe. Maybe not.

Mitchell has pockets of support on an offense that remembers the pro's pro stability he brought last year. Kitna's arm and competitiveness also has their legions.

After charting every drop step and pass of minicamp, voluntary camp, and training camp, a decision has been processed.

How close?

"Very," is all Bratkowksi would allow.

Meanwhile, Smith asked the training staff again Sunday to give him a shot of cortisone in his right shoulder, which has a mild case of tendinitis. Again, he was turned down.

"It's not safe in the long term," said trainer Paul Sparling said. "You don't do that to a tendon."

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