Lewis names Palmer as Kitna fights disappointment

3-1-04, 11:05 a.m. Updated:
3-1-04, 4 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

With the football now in Carson Palmer's right hand, the Bengals have officially begun their effort to transform their offense from solid play to big play.

When head coach Marvin Lewis broke the news to incumbent quarterback Jon Kitna last month that they are headed in a longer, different direction despite his NFL Comeback Player of the Year season, the long ball surfaced.

And Kitna, coming off a career-high 26 touchdown passes, still couldn't hide his disappointment Monday after Lewis went public with his decision.

"The one thing that Marvin said is that they wanted to try and throw the ball over the top of people more," Kitna said. "I just wish they had given me that opportunity because whenever we tried to throw the ball over the top of people, we were pretty successful. But the opportunities weren't as many as I would have liked, or as many as the guys on the team would have liked."

Despite Kitna's keen disappointment that had him openly wondering if he has a future here, he did as expected and offered Palmer his full support. He said he hopes he never takes another snap for the Bengals because that would mean they are losing or Palmer gets hurt. But he left his future as he heads into the final year of his contract (Release? Renegotiation? Trade? Stay as the No. 2?) in the hands of his faith.

"All that other stuff will take care of itself," Kitna said, "when God decides where he wants me to be."

Lewis also announced the release of defensive tackle Oliver Gibson, a four-year regular, as well as the decision to tender all seven restricted free agents. The big number went to running back Rudi Johnson in a one-year, $1.8 million offer that guarantees the Bengals first- and third-round compensation. The Bengals also tendered cornerback Reggie Myles, a third-year player who can now only sign with Cincinnati.

With Lewis banking his second season as head coach on a quarterback who took zero snaps as a rookie last season, he wanted to give his coaches time to craft an offense fit for an elite college quarterback who has all the physical skills but none of the pro experience.

"He's very, very talented. He has done nothing since we drafted him to disappoint any of us," Lewis said. "We're excited for him, about his future, his ability to help us offensively do things. (The decision) is a chance for our football team to have the understanding as we start who is the quarterback as we go into free agency and the offseason. It gives an identity of who we are as our coaches plan out the way to go in '04."

His decision had the backing of some key offensive players, although they felt badly for Kitna.

"We knew it was coming. We knew some time he was going to start. So let's go to work," said Pro Bowl receiver Chad Johnson, Palmer's No. 1 target.

"Kit had a great year. It would have been nice to see what he would have done if he kept going, but obviously Marvin and the coaches feel this is the way to go, so let's go."

Asked how long he'll need to develop chemistry with Palmer, Johnson said, "Less than a month."

He can get started March 22 three weeks from Monday when off-season workouts start. Right tackle Willie Anderson, the Bengals' dean with 120 NFL starts, thinks the club is going to have confidence in Palmer once they re-convene in a few weeks at PBS.

"I think it's going to help Carson sitting for a year watching a guy almost go to the Pro Bowl in Jon Kitna," Anderson said. "As far as Kitna took this team with the great year he had, Carson has the athletic ability to take it farther. He has to master the mental aspect of the game the way Kitna mastered it and when Carson does that, he'll be a real good quarterback."

As for Palmer, he spent Monday in San Diego at Tampa Bay safety John Lynch's charity golf tournament. He'll spend a few more weeks in southern California and then head east to claim the ball in an offense that doesn't overwhelm him.

"I'm leaps and bounds more comfortable compared to when I first came in," Palmer said. "I still have a lot to learn, but I definitely feel confident in the offense and can be successful. Every quarterback will tell you you can never know enough. I'm always going to study and try and learn more and more as I go."

Palmer and Kitna, who turns 32 early this season, have the Bengals in a jam under the salary cap. In this, the last year of his contract, Kitna counts $4.35 million against the cap, $3.3 million of it as '04 salary. The Bengals approached his agent about an extension last month at the NFL scouting combine, but Kitna hinted he isn't going to reduce his current salary ("I don't mind playing at that,") in exchange for a lower cap figure this year.

Kitna said he approached Lewis before last season with an offer to extend in a deal that would have lowered his cap figure without giving him more money, "but I guess they weren't interested." Usually, an extension, coupled with lowering the current year's cap number, involves giving the player his salary, or a part of his salary, for that year in up-front money.

That wasn't as attractive to the Bengals last year as it is this year because Kitna still had two years left on a play time-based contract and Palmer looked ready to assume the job at some point during the season. But as Kitna said Monday, things have changed, "and we'll see what they want to do now."

Also figuring into the equation not only has to be Palmer's pedigree and last year's promising preseason, but those economics. Once the

Bengals selected Palmer, they were chained together in the salary cap. His six-year, $40 million deal can max out at $49 million. Over last year and this one, he gets about $14 million in bonus and is scheduled to take home about $18 million in his first three years.

But Kitna wasn't happy to hear that Lewis said he only plans to play the best players.

"That makes me disappointed," Kitna said. "(That must mean) I'm better than I think I am."

Before Kitna unleashed the club's most accurate passing season in 20 years, the Bengals made Palmer the first overall pick in the 2003 NFL Draft last April. Palmer came into the draft as the Heisman Trophy winner whose dimensions (6-5, 230 pounds), arm (seven 300-yard passing games and 33 touchdown passes as a senior), and leadership (the Trojans averaged 41 points per game in the last eight weeks to earn the Rose Bowl title), combined to make him what many draft experts consider the prototype of an elite pro quarterback.

But Lewis has insisted since he took the job 13 months ago that the best players and not the richest are going to play. He reiterated the point Monday when he said he'll change quarterbacks if that is the reason the Bengals are losing games.

"We owe it to everybody in this building," said Lewis of his commitment to win.

Lewis showed he would stay true to his beliefs last year despite Palmer's spectacular moments. He flashed his enormous potential in the last preseason with a quite solid 87.8 passer rating.

In his PBS debut, Palmer was seven of seven passing for 97 yards to six different receivers and two touchdowns to lead a 23-10 win over the Lions.

He also showed the inconsistencies of youth. In the pre-season opener at The Meadowlands against the Jets, he threw two interceptions that got returned for touchdowns. He also threw one of his own to finish 12 of 22 for 140 yards.

"It goes back to all the things we drafted him for," said offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski. "He's got a great, quick release. He's got a strong arm. He's tall. He can get the ball down the field. He's got good touch.

"There's a lot of rookie quarterbacks that even in that situation don't perform well," said Bratkowski of Palmer's pre-season work against backups. "It was a very positive sign. Look at what he's capable of doing."

Bratkowski said Palmer is going to fit into the minicamp practice schedule just like Kitna would have, probably at about 80 percent of the snaps.

Gibson, who turns 32 in two weeks, saw his time significantly cut last year after three seasons of being the Bengals' anchor on the defensive front in turning out to be one of their best free-agent signings ever. He didn't start a game after rebounding from tearing his Achilles' tendon late in the 2002 season. With the move, the Bengals figure to save about $1.2 million in salary cap room for this season. Gibson was to receive $2.4 million in '05 and about $1.8 million for '04 in salary.

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