Kitna works instead of worries

2-13-02, 6:20 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

There was a good chance Jon Kitna would bump into Trent Dilfer Wednesday at a conference in Dallas. But they probably wouldn't be talking about the Bengals quarterbacks job.

Michael Sullivan, Dilfer's agent, has told newspapers and radio stations in Cincinnati, Chicago and Washington that his client is interested in their teams when free agency opens March 1.

Sullivan has been emphasizing how Dilfer's statistics in his 19-1 stretch as a starter dwarf those of Drew Bledsoe in the same 20 games. In his radio appearances, Sullivan has talked about stats showing Dilfer's yards per completion in his last 20 games even higher than the numbers belonging to NFL passing leader Kurt Warner in this past season's 16 games.

Bledsoe, backup for the Super Bowl champion Patriots, has been linked to the same three clubs via a possible trade. "The Boston Globe," even speculated the Patriots might be interested in right outside linebacker Takeo Spikes or middle linebacker Brian Simmons for Bledsoe.

The Bengals have indicated they are considering adding a quarterback via April's draft or free agency. But they can't comment about which quarterback they like, or if they plan to pursue one of them before March 1.

Kitna, the incumbent starter coming off an AFC low passing rating of 61.1, has been oblivious to the buzz about his job.

"You'll drive yourself crazy listening to that stuff this time of year and a lot of it is ridiculous," said Kitna, two weeks into a stepped-up off-season program.

"About 20 teams are talking about the same two guys. I'm not going to sit here and plead my case. We needed time to grow as a team and for guys to learn what I was all about. The longer you play together, the better off you're going to be. You may strike it rich, but I don't think that's the way to go. I'm super excited about next year, especially after how we finished this year."

Kitna threw for 751 yards in the Bengals' last two games of this past season in engineering wins over Pittsburgh and Tennessee. Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski acknowledges the club needs another veteran quarterback with the health of Akili Smith up in the air.

But he also won't bury Kitna in the continuing debate of what kind of quarterback helps the Bengals more: Kitna in his second year with the same system and receivers? Or a new quarterback in a new system with new receivers?

"He's going to be better. Everybody is going to be better. I guarantee it," Bratkowski said. "Jon Kitna will be here next year and we'll have a quality quarterback in him.

"If some other quarterback is here along with him, we'll be extremely solid at quarterback. We have to have someone else. It's important because if Jon is the only experienced quarterback, and Akili isn't ready to go, who do you play with (if Kitna can't)?"

Smith, seven weeks off surgery to repair a torn hamstring, visited Cincinnati this week and was given the go-ahead to take his rehab to the

next level in his bid to be ready for the first week of training camp.

"This league is all about covering your butt and I can understand what the Bengals are trying to do," said Smith, who is to miss all of minicamp and the month of voluntary workouts.

"I think I'm going to be back in time and ready. It's getting better every day," Smith said. "But I guess they feel like they need to be sure. I can't worry about that. The only thing I can do is make sure I get back as soon as possible."

Bratkowski is reviewing the passing game this week and is trying to figure out how it could be so good, so bad, and so ugly all in the same season.

In the same year that Kitna threw seven touchdowns and four interceptions in the Bengals' six wins and came up with the biggest passing day by a Bengals quarterback in 11 years, he also threw five touchdowns and 18 interceptions in the 10 losses and went 26 straight quarters without throwing a touchdown pass to a wide receiver.

"There's no doubt that Jon can do better," Bratkowski said. "But it's evident that the people around him have to be better. How can I say everyone will be better? I look at the end of the season. Look at those last two games and we were on the same page. People were making plays for him. He was throwing it to spots and guys were getting there."

In an effort to show that Dilfer is a big-play quarterback, Sullivan has released to the media his study that found Dilfer has 15 touchdown passes of 20 or more yards and 10 scoring passes of 40 or more yards in his last 20 games compared to Bledsoe's three touchdown passes of 20 or more yards and two of 40 or more yards.

Kitna has nowhere near those numbers, with two touchdowns passes of 20 yards or more this past season. But Bratkowski is also looking at other numbers.

"We went through 110 snaps with six-man pressures," said Bratkowski of Kitna's work against blitzes. "He took two sacks. A lot of that has to do with Jon organizing the protections, knowing it, knowing the site adjustments and hot reads. The line did a nice job, but Jon managed it because he had to make those calls.

"Our completion percentage was 53 percent," Bratkowski said of those snaps, "which wasn't good enough. We had a number of drops in those situations, but he handled that extremely well."

Kitna is at a Christian Outreach conference this week that involves athletes, where he expected to run into Dilfer. He doesn't know him well enough to phone, but they are aware of each other's faith. Faith is what makes Kitna oblivious to the buzz.

Instead, he is concentrating on building up what he calls "the core," of his body.

"I'm trying to trim some weight and work on my hips, stomach and back," Kitna said. "The flexors and abdomen. It's going to make me more flexible and I'm hoping it gives me more explosiveness."

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