Kitna starts; Jones might

8-19-02, 2:10 p.m. Updated:
8-19-02, 6:10 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

GEORGETOWN, Ky. _ Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau said it isn't etched in stone. But Akili Smith can read the writing on the wall.

LeBeau said Monday Jon Kitna gets Saturday night's start at quarterback against the Saints and it's not because he has any kind of an edge in a derby that will be decided the Monday after the New Orleans game.

Kitna may have a new left tackle when he breaks the huddle at Paul Brown Stadium. Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski said the club is considering starting first-round pick Levi Jones so he can get more work with the first unit.

Kitna has the highest completion percentage of his two competitors, has yet to turn the ball over, has hit seven of eight third-down passes, and has delivered 10 points in three full series. But LeBeau isn't giving an edge yet and simply plans to give Kitna the start on the basis of his field goal drive at the end of the first half in Indianapolis that gave the Bengals their only points going into the locker room.

Gus Frerotte is to follow Kitna and Smith is to finish, which is the same order as the pre-season opener two weeks ago. Bratkowski indicated that with nicks in the offensive line, Kitna and Frerotte still might only play a quarter each even though the third pre-season game is when the Bengals like to bring out their starters for the second half.

Smith feels it takes him out of the mix despite engineering two second-half comebacks and leading the club to six of its nine scoring drives in the preseason. And Bratkowski confirmed it's a two-horse race now with Kitna and Frerotte, citing the time Smith missed during the spring rehab from his hamstring injury.

"I didn't really believe I had a chance," Smith said. "I just had two pretty good games. Hopefully I can have another one this Saturday.

"There's nothing I can really do about it," Smith said. "I didn't have

my fingers crossed. A lot of things have been done around here and didn't have my fingers crossed. . .I'm just going to continue to be happy with my playing time."

Frerotte would like more playing time in a derby where the third-string quarterback has more than double the snaps. In the 22-10 victory at Indy last Saturday night, Kitna had 17 snaps, Frerotte 19, and Smith 50.

"That would be the best way," Frerotte said. "Jon and I have been splitting the first half and Akili's been getting all the second half. I think the best thing for us is to play a little bit longer. To get in the flow of the game. A lot of things happen. You figure out what the defense is giving you, and how you do some things."

Except for Frerotte's two interceptions and Smith's ability to run, it has been even-steven. Even though Smith has twice has many snaps as the other two, he barely leads them in passing yardage after two games.

Smith has 125 yards on 19-for-33 passing. Frerotte has 123 on 12-for-20, and Kitna has 111 on 14-for-21. It's been so even that Bengals President Mike Brown has been wondering if the club is destined to have a committee of quarterbacks. Which he doesn't think is a bad way to go if they win.

"They've been pretty even, haven't they?" Brown said. "I would have liked to have seen a big play or two, but they were all efficient and effective. It didn't help us decide who the lead dog is, and I don't know if there is even going to be an answer. This is how it might play out into the season in a way there never is a clear-cut answer."

Smith said he doesn't know what management is thinking. He again raised Monday the notion of getting traded or released if he isn't going to get a chance. But management is thinking that Smith is playing well enough to stick around for the next three years.

The Bengals aren't showcasing Smith for a trade because they can't fit his $3 million plus bonus acceleration under this year's salary cap after middle linebacker Brian Simmons' contract extension cost them $3 million this year.

"I don't know what Akili's future is," Brown said. "Is it here, elsewhere, as a starter, backup? I do know this. He has performed extremely well and gives you something the other two don't give you in his ability to move around. He has thrown the ball well and on time and he has gotten people back into his camp. It's been encouraging for us."

LeBeau's decision figures to come down Aug. 26, which is 13 days before the Sept. 8 regular-season opener against the Chargers at Paul Brown Stadium. Plenty of time, Frerotte says, for the starter to get ready.

But he doesn't think there should be a quick change once the decision is made, and just turn the derby into a merry-go-round. But he has seen it happen.

"It's going to take the guy a few weeks to get situated and get settled and used to things," Frerotte said. "I've been in a lot of places where there are two or three fighting for a spot and that hook comes out quick."

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