Kitna sees big things in stability

6-2-03, 5:30 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

While Akili Smith got a new lease on life with his exit from the Bengals' roster Monday, Jon Kitna continued to live the good life of the unquestioned No. 1 quarterback.

After Monday's on-field coaching session at Paul Brown Stadium, head coach Marvin Lewis ushered in the post-Akili era by saying No. 1 draft pick Carson Palmer is now in a derby with the newly-signed Shane Matthews for the backup job.

A pretty newsy day down at the yard. ESPN.com reported the Bengals even found time to reach an agreement with seventh-round pick Scott Kooistra, a tackle from North Carolina State.

There may be a question about No. 2, but there is no question that Kitna sees this season as a year he could break out and take a couple of other teammates to the Pro Bowl as the Bengals enjoy their most seasoned and stable quarterback situation since the 1997 training camp.

And, Kitna says he'd love to add to the stability and talk about a contract extension.

"I really think this could be a Pro Bowl-type year, to be honest," Kitna said. "With the same group of guys in the same system for three years straight years. . . I think it's about to happen. I'm at that point in my career where I've matured enough where I understand when to take chances and when not to take chances.

"But the main thing is I think we're in a situation where we can win a lot of football games here," Kitna said. "And when you win, people give you your due. If we pick up where we left off last year, with 20 to 25 points a game, it's not only myself, but guys like Peter (Warrick) and Chad (Johnson) and Willie Anderson who don't get the recognition they might. We've upgraded at tight end, and I'm just super excited about it."

Lewis isn't putting Palmer on the shelf at No, 3 just yet ("If he's the best quarterback, he'll play the first week"), but the move to Matthews seems to be insurance against

rushing Palmer early if something happens to Kitna. It also seems to suggest Lewis isn't looking to sacrifice any part of what he sees as a potential playoff run.

"That's smart," Kitna said. "You have to have a guy ready to go in., and if you go with (the rookie), you have to be ready to go with the wholesale ups and downs of a David Carr, a Peyton Manning, a Drew Bledsoe, a Troy Aikman at 1-15, and we're not in a position to do that right here now."

Kitna has never met the 33-year-old Matthews, but he figurers the University of Florida product knows how to golf and he wonders if he'll take his "Best Golfer on the Team," title. It looks like that's all Matthews might take for now.

"He gives us a guy who has been through the wars in this league and knows how to come into a game if a guy goes down and win," Kitna said. "Or play the next week, and you don't have to change at all offensively what you have to do."

Last year, the Bengals signed a veteran quarterback in Gus Frerotte a day before their mandatory early May minicamp, and he struggled picking up the offense when he had to split snaps with Kitna and Smith.

Now Frerotte is gone to Minnesota and Matthews is signed nine days before the June mandatory minicamp. But the Bengals don't envision the same force feeding of the offense because they don't have to get Matthews 11-11 as a spot starter ready to be the starter.

"He'll have nine practices before the start of training camp to digest what we're doing," said offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski. "One of the reasons we really like him is he's got a good football background. His father is a high school coach, football comes easy to him. He's an intelligent guy who has been exposed to a number of different systems, and we think he'll be able to pick it up quickly.

"Since he's not pressed to be the starter, it's not as big a concern," Bratkowski said. "It gives Carson a little bit of an advantage because he's already learned some of what we do, yet Shane has the game experience Carson hasn't. It gives us options."

Palmer said he's not thinking in terms of competing for No. 2 or 3, but he feels like he's competing against all the quarterbacks. Palmer also isn't lobbying to be the backup, he's just trying to learn the playbook.

"It's not my plan it's their plan," Palmer said. "I haven't been around the league to know what the plan should be. We've got coaches who have been and that's why they're coming up with the plan."

Kitna may be a free agent out of Central Washington, but he's got plenty in common with the No. 1 pick in the draft. He was once a NFL rookie quarterback, and Kitna plans to talk to Palmer about his approach.

"His season is going to be the preseason," Kitna said. "That's the approach I took. I knew the only time I was going to play was if something terrible happened, and you don't ever want that. I approached the pre-season games like a game. Uptempo, coming out running. I was looking for the quick counts so I would get more snaps."

In just 12 starts of snaps last season, Kita had his career year. His 63.6 completion percentage was the best for the Bengals in 18 years. In 11 of the starts, the offense produced 300 yards and 350 in eight. The streak of six straight 350-yard games was the team's longest in 16 years. His 81.4 passer rating as a starter was his first time in the 80s.

With all the skill players returning and no quarterback derby in training camp, Kitna thinks the offense is on the verge of big things. It's one of the reasons he wouldn't mind staying beyond 2004, when his contract ends.

Even if they feel like he'll eventually be Palmer's backup.

"I'm not looking for them to spend any more money against the (salary) cap, and it's probably tough because we just drafted a quarterback No. 1 and made a lot of good pickups in free agency," Kitna said. "I don't know if they're in position to do it.

"(An extension) would be good for them because if I was still playing at a high level and they didn't think Carson was ready, or if they felt I could back up. And it would be good for my family knowing where we were going to be for another two years."

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