Kitna sees uncertain future

12-24-01, 6:00 a.m.

Updated: 12-24-01, 7:10 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

BALTIMORE _ With 10 touchdown passes and 20 interceptions this season, Jon Kitna wonders how long he can remain the Bengals quarterback.

He indicated Sunday he doesn't think he's not only the quarterback of the future, but he sounded like he's not sure he'll be the quarterback Christmas Eve.

During Sunday's 16-0 loss here to the Ravens, his passing rating was 20 and his quarterback rating was called into question by rookie receiver Chad Johnson. He hasn't thrown a touchdown pass in three straight games, hasn't thrown one to a wide receiver in 23 quarters, has thrown 13 interceptions in the seven-game losing streak, and has thrown six picks in the last two games.

Last year, the Bengals thought scoring a franchise-low 185 points could never happen again. Now they have to find eight more points in the last two games to make sure they don't score less.

But it looks like Kitna is on deck against the AFC Central Division champion Steelers when they bring the NFL's No. 1 defense into Paul Brown Stadium next Sunday. That's because Scott Mitchell is doubtful and head coach Dick LeBeau is doubtful about starting Scott Covington.

"Hopefuly and prayerfully, this isn't my last year (as a Bengal) and I'll be able to stay around when we do get things (right)," said Kitna, who knows it's been bad enough to blow up his four-year contract.

"When you throw 20 interceptions in a year and do some of the things I've done," Kitna said. "At the end of the year, that's what people look at. When the team loses, people always look at the quarterback. Especially when they've got a guy they drafted high (Akili Smith). Either we've got to get this thing straightened out or we see what happens."

At the moment, it looks like the economy is easier to get straightened out than the Bengals quarterback situation. Defensive captain Takeo Spikes didn't mention the position specifically, but after losing five straight games in which the defense has allowed less than 19 points, he allowed for the upcoming season, "There are going to have to be some changes on both sides of the ball."

Smith has surgery on his torn hamstring Wednesday. Mitchell

doesn't want to come back after thinking he won the job in training camp. Kitna and his receivers are now not only not on the same page, but they are taking veiled and not so veiled shots at each other. And none of them have come close to Jeff Blake's 77.6 passer rating of 1999.

But there was some support inside the club Sunday night for Kitna. Privately, some feel he's taken the brunt of the blame for bad luck and bad drops. Publicly, of course, LeBeau backed him.

"I refuse to accept that premise," said LeBeau of the growing belief the receivers lack confidence in Kitna. "I don't think that's accurate.

"It's not just the quarterback," LeBeau said, noting running back Brandon Bennett slipped on one of the interceptions "in a critical situation.

"We got the ball deep a few times and they didn't get it," LeBeau said. "He threw some good balls they didn't come down with. We didn't protect him like we should have at times. It's easier to pick out one guy when you don't score and that's the quarterback."

Kitna, a devout Christian, invoked his faith several times in the post-game media fire. He admitted his faith may hurt him with some teammates, but he thinks he's respected because he's honest with them. He said he hopes he's around when this offense finally comes together because he says as close to oblivion as it is now, it's also on the brink "of doing some unbelievable things. . . I may not be around for that. That's the reality. I hope my teammates know I'm going to give the best I can give and if that's not good enough, I guess it's not good enough."

Kitna noted how close they were to reaching offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski's pre-game goal of a 100-yard rusher and 100-yard receiver. Kitna didn't say it, but rookie receiver Chad Johnson could have had 97 on one play if he didn't drop it.

"We played the world champions today. This defense is no joke," Kitna said. He also sounded the accountability theme he has harped on for weeks.

"Every man has to look at himself and decide what's the most important thing to you as far as football is concerned," Kitna said. "You have to do things extra. You have to make adjustments. You have to make corrections on what you're doing wrong."

But Kitna seems to know the major question after Sunday is if anyone is going to listen to his advice.

THIS AND THAT: Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham said Sunday that offensive line coach Paul Alexander and quarterbacks coach Ken Anderson have accepted Bengals President Mike Brown's offer to return to the staff. Of those who could be asked Sunday, Brown and Alexander wouldn't confirm it. Those are two positions that have been under scrutiny because of the inconsistent running game and punchless passing game. . .

Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau watched Ravens free safety Rod Woodson tie him at six on the all-time interceptions list with 62 late in the first half when Jon Kitna threw behind Peter Warrick. But a roughing the passer call on Ravens' tackle Sam Adams gave LeBeau some more breathing room. . .The Bengals have been shut out three straight years in Baltimore, the first time that's happened in the NFL since the Raiders did it in Oakland to the Chargers in the mid-70s. . .

SPIKES AT LOSS: Some homemade signs at hostile PSINet Stadium buried Bengals defensive captain Takeo Spikes. But quarterback Jon Kitna gave his unit the ultimate praise.

"I've dreamed about playing on a team like this and a defense like this and that's what hurts so much," Kitna said after directing the Bengals to one or no touchdowns for the seventh straight game.

If Kitna hurts, what about Spikes? The Bengals held the Ravens to one touchdown even though Baltimore averaged starting on its own 46-yard line. That's a week after they held the Jets to two touchdowns when New York's average drive start was its own 47.

Make it five straight games the Cincinnati defense hasn't allowed 19 points. Eight straight games it hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher. Five games with at least four sacks after they dumped Evis Grbac five times Sunday.

"Very frustrating," said Spikes, who the press box stats say led all tacklers with 14. "When you go out

there and do a lot of things right on both sides of the ball and don't come up with any points, that takes the air out of you. We have to find a way to score some points."

Spikes downplayed the pre-game hype surrounding his war of words with Ravens tight end Shannon Sharpe. Spikes never really had a problem with Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis, but he objected to Sharpe's objections when Steelers running back Jerome Bettis said Spikes was as good as Lewis.

On Sunday, he admitted what Sharpe said hurt him and there was no doubt as they jawed early and often. After he caught a big 12-yard pass in the Ravens' touchdown drive, Sharpe jumped into Spikes' face and imitated Lewis' pre-game dance.

Spikes spoke to Lewis after the game and said nothing would come between him and their relationship. But he had very little to say about Sharpe.

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