12-24-01, 6:00 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, he's thrown 13 interceptions in the seven-game losing streak, and six in the last two games.
But it looks like he's 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.