5-4-04, 4:55 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Kurt Kittner is used to playing behind the No. 1 pick in the entire NFL draft.
Except this time, it's not Michael Vick. Except this time, it's his fellow counselor from the Elite 11 Camp in Carson Palmer.
"I learned from Mike and he's a good guy," said Kittner Monday as the newest Bengal quarterback reflected on his days playing behind the supersonic Vick. "But I also learned what I can't do. I think the guys that are here are guys that play more like me and I can learn more from them."
The Bengals ended up taking Kittner two years after they nearly took him in the 2002 draft out of Illinois when they claimed him off waivers last Friday. He has to be considered the leading candidate for
the No. 3 job behind Palmer and his linguistic namesake, Jon Kitna, simply based on experience. He comes into his third NFL season off four starts and one victory in 2003, four more starts and one more win than seventh-rounder Casey Bramlet and college free agent Scott Rislov.
It was a difficult year to make a debut. He began the season as the No. 3, but Vick's pre-season broken ankle and backup Doug Johnson's struggles forced him into the lineup when the Falcons were in the final, ugly days of the Dan Reeves regime with a 1-7 record. His passer rating of 32.5 was the lowest of any quarterback who threw more than 100 passes in completing less than 40 percent of his 114 attempts.
"It was hard, but I got some experience that hopefully is going to make me a better player," Kittner said. "My decision making wasn't very good at times, but I learned how to prepare for a game and go through the week as a starter, and I think getting a fresh start here is going to be a good thing for me."
With the change in coaching staff, Kittner prepared for something, but it's still always a surprise when it still happens. The Falcons signed on a West Coast offense guy in Ty Detmer, and then after mulling the possible release of Kitna and unsuccessfully pursuing the Chargers' Drew Brees, Atlanta drafted Virginia quarterback Matt Schaub in the third round to back up Vick and Detmer.
Kittner kept working out with the Falcons, but wasn't all that stunned to get released last Tuesday night in the hours after the draft. The Bengals picked him up because of what they saw when they scouted him in 2002 but ended up not taking: Brains, good arm, solid college production.
If the Bengals hadn't traded their fifth-round pick to move up and get tight end Matt Schobel on Saturday night of that draft, might it have happened? Atlanta took Kittner in the fifth.
"It's kind of ironic, and I'm glad to be here," Kittner said.
Quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese wasn't here then, but certainly the Illini passing pedigree makes everyone notice.
"He played under a great quarterbacks coach there in Ron Turner," Zampese said. "That means he's been well coached in a pro sort of style and that should help him along the way."
Zampese is pretty blunt on what it is going to take to be the Bengals No. 3: "Who ever picks up the system the quickest and gives us the smallest drop-off if they have to go into the game. And, I imagine, who has the biggest upside down the road."
Zampese showed Kittner a small amount of tape Monday, but Kittner saw just enough to understand what he has to do here.
"They take their shots down the field and the receivers certainly did a good job last year," said Kittner, who plans to throw with the wideouts Wednesday. "There are a lot of weapons and you just have to get them the ball so they can make plays."
One of the guys he'll be throwing to is tight end Reggie Kelly, the former Falcon who was there when Kittner's rookie year.
"He's got a strong arm and he's eager to learn," Kelly said. "I don't know what happened in Atlanta, but I think he's a good guy to have. He's a young guy who wants to do well and has a good arm."
Kittner met Palmer during a summer camp in California and they got along well. He has followed his career since and he thinks it will help him that he didn't have to play last year. Kittner also watched his rookie year and didn't throw a pass.
"I think it's going to help him more than it helped me," Kittner said. "He was able to watch a guy like Jon play and I was watching Mike. Like I said, I was able to pick up some things, but nobody plays like Mike. I didn't learn from him as much as I was probably just in awe of him. He does things that nobody else can do."