Kitna waits in wings

3-3-02, 6:45 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

INDIANAPOLIS _ Jon Kitna has been saying it since the Bengals went into that seven-game losing streak last season that has sparked the club's current quarterback search.

He reiterated it Saturday when he learned the Bengals had failed to sign Trent Dilfer and started talking to Elvis Grbac about coming to Cincinnati and challenging Kitna for the No. 1 job.

"I'm not going to be upset about it because I believe in God and that's the most important thing," Kitna said over the phone Saturday night.

"It's proven that you're not going to get better by always making changes," Kitna said. "At the end of the year, we started to jell. We started to figure each other out. And now they're looking at a guy who already told them, 'No.' I don't understand that. We're going to be better next year because we've got another year in the system. You keep changing and all you're going to be is mediocre."

Kitna isn't the only one who thinks that way in the organization. There is a school of thought that says sticking with him in his second year of the offense is at least an equal option to a Dilfer or a Grbac in the first year of a new system. Bengals President Mike Brown expressed similar thoughts Saturday while digesting the Dilfer news, but he knows improvement is needed.

"We might be better off that way, it's hard to say," said Brown of the status quo of Kitna backed up by Akili Smith. "I do think Kitna will be better. I'd like to think that Akili will finally show that he can be OK. Beyond that, I really don't know where we are."

Which is why someone has to be added to the mix that also includes Scott Covington, who hasn't thrown a pass since 1999. Bengals head coach

Dick LeBeau said Smith's severe hamstring injury has dictated the search as much as the bid for better production. LeBeau is optimistic Smith will be 100 percent by the start of training camp, but it's a question mark and he will definitely miss all of the off-season workouts.

LeBeau said Saturday he can accept Kitna starting another season, but he also danced around the question if a new quarterback will be named No. 1.

And no matter what, LeBeau is looking to improve a passing game in which Kitna threw just 12 touchdown passes and 22 interceptions.

Kitna knows the numbers are bad, but he thinks the film is kinder and a better gauge.

"When you look at the decision-making," Kitna said, "I think you'll see it was pretty good. I'd say that 10 of those interceptions were because of a bad decision or throw. But the rest were because of a tip, or a guy fell down, or something like that. I just don't think you can look at the numbers and base it all off that. I think you have to look at the improvement in the last two games."

After throwing for more than 250 yards just once in the first 14 games, Kitna passed for 751 yards in the last two weeks. He thinks that's proof the offense is on its way.

"No question," Kitna said. "We're just going to get better. God put me in Cincinnati for a reason whether I'm the starter or the backup."

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