9-23-02, 9:30 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
ATLANTA _ For the sixth straight
season the Bengals won't have a quarterback start all 16 games. Which is the main reason why they are where they are Monday morning.
Which is at the bottom of the heap and at the end of the punch lines and out of answers following Sunday night's 30-3 national disaster at the hands of the Atlanta Falcons.
Jon Kitna or Akili Smith, the last two Opening Day starters? And does it matter after Gus Frerotte is, at least temporarily, on the same ash heap with Jeff Blake, Neil O'Donnell, Scott Mitchell and all the other quarterbacks who played worse here than anywhere else?
Kitna, who came off the bench to complete 18 of 35 passes for 131 yards, has never felt he should have lost the job for continuity's sake. You'd probably have to put him in the growing group that thinks the training camp quarterback derby, although fair, never gave the offense a chance to click early.
Kitna threw his obligatory behind-the-receiver interception on the first drive of the second half, but he did provide a bit of a boost.
"Please don't take this as a negative. I'm not trying to be negative," Kitna said. "Whenever a change comes at the quarterback position, a lot of groundwork needs to be changed. Sometimes you catch lightning in bottle a la in New England or in St. Louis when Trent Green got hurt. I guess those were necessary choices.
"I'm sure it's hard for Gus," Kitna said. "He probably feels like every week he has to put points on the board early or he's out of there and that's a hard way to play the position, a difficult way to play the position."
Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski said after the game that all aspects of his scheme have to be
evaluated from personnel to play calling, admitting it's the lowest point of his six years as a NFL coordinator His game plan was paralyzed from the start when a holding call on the kickoff and two false starts on the first series resulted in Frerotte's interception on third-and-20.
"We just never overcame the early problems," Bratkowski said. "It was the first time this season we were in a loud stadium and we had trouble adjusting."
Kitna thinks the adjusting that comes with a new quarterback prevents a quick fix. He felt the offense was headed in the right direction during the last two games last year, when he threw for 751 yards.
"I'm not saying that's the reason, but that has something to do with it," Kitna said.
This is the NFL, where there is never just one reason for success or failure, and so it is with Frerottes' brief run that ended with a horrible 0-for-7 outing.
"A lot of the stuff is new to him and the guys around him haven't helped him," said right tackle Willie Anderson. "He didn't get a lot of time to practice with a certain group and the guys around him haven't really stepped up around him and it's hurt him."
Anderson said Frerotte and the offensive line are still getting used to each other when it comes to knowing how long he'll hold on to the ball and when he'll throw it. It was tough to watch him in a game after he had called a team meeting the week before.
"He takes hits and he's tough and we still believe in him," Anderson said.
But one of the reasons he's sitting down is he's getting nothing from his wide receivers. There have been just two passes of at least 20 yards the whole season, free-agent Michael Westbrook had no catches Sunday night with two drops, and Peter Warrick had his weekly drop.
It looked like he tried to catch a crossing pattern from Frerotte one-handed, and if he did he would have had a 50-yard play staring at him.
"I thought it was too far in front of me, that's why I went for it with one hand," Warrick said. "After seeing it, I really couldn't tell, but I think it was too far."
Kitna thinks the major problems are the uncertainty at quarterback and the inability to get Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon untracked. He's on pace for 981 yards, his first sub-1,000 yard season and he's still 55 yards shy of James Brooks' club rushing record.
"We have to get the running game going," Kitna said. "It's hard to stay with it because we've been behind. That's our best player. With him not running the ball well, it takes a lot of things away from us."
Kitna at least has a good feel of what he's been seeing.
"Right now, we aren't doing anything well," he said. "There's not one phase that you would say that we can take care of and that we can build around. That's a tough thing to say."