12-29-03, 5:40 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
As the second alternate, Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna may still end up going to the Pro Bowl. But there won't be No. 1 quarterback in Cincinnati until head coach Marvin Lewis evaluates the position that also has the NFL Draft's overall No. 1 pick who didn't play a snap his rookie season in Carson Palmer.
"We're going to evaluate that. I'm not going to make a decision on that (yet)," said Lewis in Monday's news conference at Paul Brown Stadium. "We're going to wait and see what's best, and Jon and I are going to talk again."
Even though he is the unquestioned Most Valuable Player of the Bengals' turnaround season, Kitna had no problems in the meeting with his head coach less than 24 hours after the 22-14 loss to Cleveland ended the season at 8-8. In fact, he hinted he would be willing to re-structure his contract if it helps the team and helps keep Kitna in a community where he has decided to live full-time.
He also said in his effort to be a Christian role model he expects Palmer "to carry on the torch, whenever that may be."
It provided an orange-and-black contrast to the locker just a few doors down from Kitna. Running back Corey Dillon's locker was virtually bare, and he had apparently taken his nameplate for a souvenir in yet another telegram to management.
Lewis wouldn't address Dillon's demands to leave, probaby because he hasn't gone to Lewis with them.
"I guess he's told everyone else that. That's his prerogative, to speak his mind. I'm not going to let Corey take away anything that our football team has done," Lewis said.
In wrapping up what is going to result in a Coach of the Year season by some organizations, Lewis said his team has to find defensive help (he emphasized the secondary) and has to make signing restricted free agent Rudi Johnson a priority. He also said he's looking to add "warriors," to a team that has to find a way to reverse a 1-3 December to make the jump to the playoffs next season.
But the quarterback situation continues to give off the most heat and light. After the best of his seven NFL seasons, Kitna has found a home while Dillon is looking.
"I'm open to helping this team," Kitna said as most of his teammates packed up their lockers to head out of town. "They know that. It's been stated to them by me personally. I've made (cap relief) available to them throughout time.
"I stated to Marvin I don't want to be anywhere else," Kitna said.
Kitna is heading into the last year of his contract and by playing every snap this past season, he's going to earn $3.3 million and count $4.3 million against next year's cap. A bargain for a Pro Bowl quarterback, but a heavy number if he's teamed with a $50 million draft pick like Palmer and is coming off his last four games in which he threw four touchdown passes and six interceptions.
But Lewis didn't say the last month has brought Kitna back to earth and made a training-camp scrum with Palmer possible. Lewis continued to salute Kitna on his career year in which he set personal highs for touchdown passes (26) yards (3,591), rating (87.4), completion percentage (62.3), completions (324) and yards per attempt (6.9).
And Kitna pointed out in the month of December, "The reality is on offense we had two guys playing on one knee (left tackle Levi Jones and wide receiver Peter Warrick) and a guy on one leg (left guard Eric Steinbach.). Those are guys you're really counting on."
Kitna feels comfortable enough in Cincinnati that for the first time in his life he is going to live permanently outside his native Washington state and spend his first offseason in his Westchester-area home.
"It's right. It's where I want to be," Kitna said. "It's a great place for my family. I enjoy the town. I've never been more comfortable with a head coach than I am with him. I've never been more prepared by a quarterback coach (Ken Zampese) than I was this year."
But he admits there are things to be resolved when asked if he would be OK with a training camp battle. Last year, Kitna was No. 1 from Day One for the first time in his three Bengals seasons and he responded with the year of his life. Some would argue that even the year of his life got the Bengals to only 8-8, but others would argue that he played better than about 90 percent of the league's quarterbacks. But he sounded like he is prepared to watch Palmer at some point.
"All that stuff needs to be talked about in the long run," Kitna said "Carson is going to be a heck of a quarterback. I can't wait to watch him and all those things. But we'll see what happens in the long run. That's for the coaches and the organization to decide."
Kitna has roomed with Palmer and spent time with him in order to be a life role model more than a football one. He figures since Palmer is blessed with so many physical tools, there is no need for him to look at Kitna on how to play quarterback. So he has figured out why he and Palmer were put on the same team.
"To teach Carson how to be a man of God in the NFL. To be a quarterback for a football team," Kitna said. "That's why I roomed with him. So he could see my life lived out in front of him. We rarely talk about football. The things that he does, I don't do, or the things that I do, he doesn't do. He's going to be his own guy. . . "My focus was to live my life as a man of God in front of him and hopefully he'll carry on the torch whenever that may be."
As for Palmer, Lewis expects him to keep learning and keep improving and that he starts out with the mentality of a starting quarterback.
"He is going to approach the year just like all of our guys, as the starting quarterback," Lewis said. "Just like Jon would, and Shane (Matthews) would. We will have a good chance (for workouts) once the weather breaks. We have a good group of young receivers with Kelley (Washington) Peter Warrick, Chad (Johnson), Kevin Walter and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. These guys live for football. So we'll have a chance for him to get a good evaluation of himself and understanding football."
On Monday, the Bengals signed the following players to their off-season roster: Kenny Jackson, LB, Nevada; Belton Johnson, OL, Mississippi; Ricot Joseph, DB, Central Florida; Pete Lougheed, OL, Purdue; James Lynch, RB, Maryland; Mike Mabry, C, Central Florida; Norris McCleary, DL, East Carolina; Justin Sands, OL, Kansas; Greg Scott, DL, Hampton; Adam Ziesel, WR, Missouri Western.
Johnson, Joseph, Lynch, Mabry, and Scott are coming off stints on the practice squad. Ziesel went to Bengals' training camp as a free-agent rookie last year and caught a touchdown pass in the intrasquad scrimmage before getting released.