3-16-03, 7:45 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
There are no signs the Bengals have begun negotiations with any of the top college prospects, which is the right of the team holding the No. 1 draft pick. If anything, they are stepping up their evaluation process with 41 days until they go on the clock.
Even though offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski and quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese spent three-and-a-half hours last week interviewing quarterback Carson Palmer the day before USC's pro workouts, the Bengals plan to send a bigger contingent to Los Angeles in the next few weeks to work out Palmer privately. Head coach Marvin Lewis has indicated the club is considering plans to host Palmer and others at Paul Brown Stadium closer to the draft. He has also said the Bengals want to hold off doing anything until they see Marshall quarterback . Byron Leftwich work out April 7.
And, with the Bears and Cardinals still not ruling out taking a quarterback in the draft, and active teams like Washington and New England walking around with itchy trigger fingers, the Bengals won't rule out a trade. Plus, with the addition of four possible starters on defense in free agency, they look to be mulling the notion that they are close enough to contend if they add an impact Opening Day player such as Kansas State cornerback Terence Newman instead of a project rookie quarterback.
Meanwhile, Bengals incumbent quarterback Jon Kitna is doing what he usually does amid the storm. For a man who gives 20 percent of his family's income to ministry, he is letting God handle it. Which is a philosophy that has turned out quite well for his family, his church, and a growing legion of teammates convinced he can take them to the Promised Land.
"The Cincinnati Enquirer," reported this weekend that the Bengals used their discretion two months ago to award Kitna the controversial play-time incentive that haunted this team down the stretch. Even though he was a handful of snaps shy from reaching the 80-percent participation level, the Bengals decided to count two-point plays and adjusted the number to just barely give him the fractions needed to jump his 2003 salary from the whole numbers of $1 million to $2.6 million.
Right tackle Willie Anderson could have won some money, too, if he put any down.
"I bet guys," said Anderson figuratively. "I told them, 'You watch. They'll give it to him if it's close like that.'"
Sideline sources from that last game in Buffalo suggest players were getting carried away in the final moments, screaming for Kitna to run a hurry-up offense so he could get the necessary snaps even though they were getting blown out. If there was ever an argument for how incentives can warp the league, that was it, because even Kitna was surprised how the subject dominated the locker room and the media for the last month.
"I never should have said anything about it in the first place because I believed it was in God's hands," Kitna said. "I've been told by guys around the league that a lot of teams never would have let me get that close by playing me in that last game. I thank the Brown family and I thank God. To me, it's not the money. But by paying me the money, they showed me that I'm their guy and that means so much to me."
After criticizing management several times publicly and even once intimating they would bench him so he wouldn't get the money, Kitna met with Bengals President Mike Brown twice in the season's last month. It didn't stop Brown from making the last major move of the pre-Marvin Lewis era when he signed off on Bengals executive vice president Katie Blackburn's letter to Kitna telling him the club was pleased with his season and that they expected an even better one in 2003.
"It shows a lot of things," Anderson said. "It shows the Bengals are trying to change the way people look at them and it shows what faith in God can do. Kitna was the only guy who wasn't worried about it. He never talked about it. He just went out and did his job. If I'm here for the remaining four years of my career, I hope Jon is with me all the way. He's a true leader. I can't say enough about him."
In the last few minutes in Buffalo, Anderson found himself trying to hurry his teammates in and out of the huddle so Kitna could get his snaps. He was even tempted to turn around and ask Kitna why he didn't jack up the pace.
"The guys wanted to see him get it because I think they felt he deserved it," Anderson said. "In a lot of ways, he was our MVP and under tough circumstances. He had an excellent season and if he had started the whole way, he would have had a great year. Guys saw that. And there he was (in the last minutes), just trying to score points and not do anything out of the ordinary."
One thing Kitna does. He walks the walk. He saluted his linemen by giving them full sets of golf clubs. And, one of the main beneficiaries of the $1.6 million is the Kitnas' church back home in Washington, the Antioch Bible Church in Kirkland. He gives 10 percent of his salary to the church. He also gives another 10 percent of the family's income to other ministries, such as youth and adopted children.
"The ministries are different each year. We try to spread that out," Kitna said. "It's a privilege to be able to help God spread his work and his word."
Which is why for Kitna, worrying about such things as whom the Bengals are going to draft isn't an option.
"If they draft a guy in the first, fourth round, whatever, and he comes in and beats me out, that's fine," Kitna said. "I'll say what I've said since I've been here. If God means for me to be the quarterback of this team, I will be. And when you look at what has happened in the last two years here, you have to believe he has a plan."