8-20-02, 3:45 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
GEORGETOWN, Ky. _ When it comes to quarterbacks this season, Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau wants to fire all his weapons and won't be afraid to pull the trigger on any of them at any point in a game.
The idea of riding the hot hand among the three quarterbacks during the season has been floated by not only LeBeau here at Tuesday's news conference, but also Bengals President Mike Brown throughout training camp.
Yet the shuttle concept isn't exactly embraced by certain pockets of the offense. In fact, Jon Kitna, last year's starter and this season's leader, shoots holes in the lock-and-load theory of using different quarterbacks.
"It's not healthy," said Kitna after Tuesday morning's skills session. "The quarterback has to be a leader and if you've got three guys, you've got a problem. If that's the case, I would take a seat, and let somebody else play because I think that's best for the team. My whole focus is helping get this team to the playoffs whether I'm the guy or somebody else is the guy. . . .I want us to realize our potential.
"That would be the best for the team," Kitna said. "If (rotating quarterbacks) was the case and we needed somebody to step down, I would step down for the team."
Kitna displayed some of that feistiness he's known for on the field. He doesn't know if the quarterback competition is good for the team because he felt a starter should have been named this week, but it is has been too close to call and LeBeau has delayed it for a week. And when someone noted that his yards per attempt this preseason is 5.3 and not far off last season's deadly 5.54, he let it be known, "They haven't called any plays down the field when I've been in the game. I've converted third downs. I don't care about yards per attempt. I care about points and wins, and yards per attempt will come."
They better, because LeBeau, the renowned Civil War buff, is heading into this campaign like Grant steaming into Vicksburg at any cost.
"If you've got five weapons and one of them misfires, well, you better load up with weapons two, three, four
and five, and give them a shot, because otherwise you haven't shot all your bullets," LeBeau said. "That doesn't mean once you get weapon No. 1 re-tooled that he's still not weapon No. 1. If the first guy doesn't do real well, I would never be opposed to putting the second quarterback in and possibly the third.
"We'll do that at right end, we'll do that at inside linebacker, we'll do that at strong safety," LeBeau said. "We'll do that any place and it doesn't mean that particular player won't be the starter that next week. But if we're having trouble in a game, we're going to look for solutions."
LeBeau said pulling a quarterback wouldn't mean he had lost confidence in him, but it would simply be an effort to win the game. Which of course begs the question of a quarterback looking over his shoulder and passing up plays that might get him pulled if unsuccessful.
"I talk to all of our players and I tell them not to look over their shoulders," LeBeau said. "You can't play that way. If I make a change, it's not a change written in stone. It's a change because the chemistry isn't clicking and that's all positions. There is probably a fine line in everything."
There is certainly a fine line separating Kitna and Gus Frerotte for the starting job with Kitna getting the nod Saturday night against the Saints because he led the Bengals to their only first-half points last week.
Kitna's only take on the derby is that he's done everything the Bengals asked him to do. After a season he completed 53.9 percent of his passes, and after co-leading the AFC with Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon with 13 fumbles that went along with his 22 interceptions, the club asked Kitna to raise his completion percentage and cut down on his turnovers.
His tally of practices and games with three practices left in training camp: a 70 completion percentage and one interception. In games, it's 67 percent and no interceptions.Yes, his yards per attempt are down where it was last year. But Akili Smith is 12th in the NFL in the pre-season stats with a 75.9 passer rating and his yards per attempt is 3.8. The player ahead of him in rating, Jesse Palmer, is at 8.3, and the player behind him, David Carr, is at 6.2.
With three of their top receivers out last week against the Colts' two-deep zone, and Bengals speed receivers Michael Westbrook and Chad Johnson yet to be on the field together, it's been hard to go down field. And Kitna's argument is he's taking what the defensive is giving.
"In (the regular season), the first half is for setting up plays to use later in the game," Kitna said. I could care less about yards per attempt. If my completion percentage is above 60 percent, my yards per attempt are going to be about six or seven yards per attempt. I'm not worried about it If it's third-and-five and I've got one receiver open for six and another one for 25, I'm taking the first down."
Kitna, who had a 6.68 yards per attempt during his four seasons in Seattle, says his style has always been to move the chains and to do it in the most economical fashion. That's in direct contrast to Frerotte, who has two interceptions this preseason, but also has the best yard-per-attempt on the club at 6.2. His career per attempt of 7.02 was one of his selling points to the club during free agency.
But offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski said Tuesday that it can be an overrated stat and he indicated turnovers and points are more important.
"We want our guys to take what the defense gives them," Bratkowski said. "Find the open guy and if he's underneath, then look underneath."
Kitna is clearly secure in his position. When his one full series ended Saturday night with a Travis Dorsch 33-yard field goal at the end of the first half, the coaches asked him if he wanted to start the second half.
But Kitna told them if they wanted to give guys work, go ahead. He had done what he was supposed to do. He had upped his preseason third-down passing to 7-for-8, he had taken the team down to score despite a batch of penalties (one cost them a touchdown), and he figured 15 snaps were about right for the second pre-season game.
"I know what I can do in this league," Kitna said. "I know I can win as a starter in this league. That's not a question with me."
But it is still a question with the club as a resolution looms next Monday after playing the Saints.