Longshots pay off, 2-0

9-26-01, 4:10 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Jon Kitna vs. Doug Flutie.

Suddenly, it is this Sunday's NFL headline poker game between two discards born a decade apart.

Kitna, jobless in Seattle despite a playoff run, vs. Flutie, Buffaloed by the Bills despite a 30-14 career NFL record.

Kitna, who started his college career at Central Washington as the 12th quarterback and ended it as a first team NAIA All-American, vs. Flutie, who began his college career as Boston College's fifth quarterback and ended it as the Heisman Trophy winner.

Kitna, who proved himself in Europe by leading Barcelona to the title, vs. Flutie, who dissed the NFL with three Grey Cups in the Canadian Football League.

Flutie can say it for both of them, like he did Wednesday from San Diego.

"People in personnel don't want to take risks," Flutie said. "If they bring in a guy 6-4 and he doesn't succeed, it's the kid's fault. If a guy my size doesn't succeed, who's the idiot who brought him in? It's all about covering your own tail sometimes."

So it's two anti-computer guys. Kitna, the small college unknown who turned 29 last Friday, has the downtrodden Bengals 2-0. Flutie, the little man who turns 39 next month, has the downtrodden Chargers 2-0.

"They're so similar," said Jack Bicknell with a fatherly chuckle. "And they're so different. One thing about both of them. They won't let their teams pack up in the fourth quarter. I've seen both guys lead a lot of comebacks. They'll both fight you."

Bicknell is the guy who should know. He coached them both and will be Velcroed to Direct TV this Sunday in New Hampshire.

In Barcelona, Bicknell watched Kitna calm his emotions enough to throw for 401 yards to give his Dragons the 1997 World Bowl. At Boston College, Bicknell watched the impassive Flutie improvise the Eagles from Eastern mediocrity to national prominence.

"Doug would throw an interception and he'd come back to the sidelines and I'd tell him, 'You know, we're wearing maroon today,' and he'd just laugh," Bicknell said. "If you did that to Jon, he'd probably snap right back at you."

Kitna is four years older and not as on edge as he was

then. But he still prides himself on being an emotional player.

"Coach Bicknell actually asked me during a timeout in my second game over there, 'Have you ever had a coach beat you up?'" Kitna said. "But that year with Jack really helped me out. He's such a laid back guy, but he wants to win and he showed me how I could use the emotion to help me instead of hurt me."

Bicknell says he wanted to strangle Kitna, "about 10 times because he could be a pain in the butt to coach," but, "I love him because the emotion was never phony. He just wants to win so badly. But he thought he could throw the ball through a keyhole."

Bicknell saw Flutie thread keyholes and perform other miracles at BC. Maybe the biggest miracle is at 5-10, 180 pounds, he's still doing the sleight of hand that brought him the Heisman.

"He hasn't gained a pound," Bicknell said. "He still has the quickness. No one is as quick as this guy. I'm not talking about his speed. I'm talking about his quickness. He takes good care of himself.

" He doesn't take a lot of shots. He's got that ability to throw the ball and just recoil and not take a hit," Bicknell said. "It's surprising because being a little guy, he doesn't have a lot of wear and tear on his body. He senses pressure from the outside. He knows where everybody is and where it is coming from. He doesn't get hit from the blindside."

Bicknell, who is still the coach for Barcelona, says the 6-2, 215-pound Kitna has a better arm than Flutie. He says Kitna is also a tough, legitimate runner like Flutie, "but when I had him, Jon didn't know how to slide. Neither guy is a scrambler, but they'll get rid of the ball. Doug doesn't look to run. He drops back and if there's four linemen and a guy underneath, he'll run that quarterback draw."

The year Bicknell went to BC, the previous coaching staff rejected Flutie out of Natick High School. Too short. Bicknell wasn't exactly enamored either. The guy Bicknell really wanted was a kid named Peter Muldoon. and he only went after Flutie because Bicknell trusted Natick coach Tom Lamb.

Muldoon went on to have a nice career at Holy Cross. But four years later on the afternoon BC beat Holy Cross in the last regular-season game, Flutie helicoptered out of Worcester, Mass., to pick up the Heisman Trophy.

"He was our fifth quarterback and I was thinking about him as a safety, a wide receiver, a punt returner," Bicknell said. "The four guys in front of him weren't very good and about halfway through his freshman year we were getting the crap beat out of us at Penn State and I said, 'What the hell?'"

Current Jaguars head coach Tom Coughlin, then Bicknell's offensive coordinator, asked him, "Are you really sure about this?"

When Flutie took the Eagles to a touchdown and a field goal, he was: "There was a change in the air," Bicknell said.

It was pretty much the same story with Kitna in Europe. Barcelona's quarterback was supposed to be Stony Case. Bicknell had never heard of Kitna.

"Case was the name and he was a good quarterback there," Bicknell said. "But about the fifth day of practice, I'm saying to myself that he's not the best guy we got. I see Jon's trajectory is good, the ball comes out of there fast and accurate and he's tough and smart. Over there, it's play the best guy and so it was Jon."

Bicknell isn't so sure about that when it comes to the NFL and Flutie.

"It's a crime he was exiled to Canada for eight years," Bicknell said. "He can play in the NFL, but for a long time I don't think anyone had the guts to take him until (current Chargers GM John Butler signed him in Buffalo in 1998) because no one wants a quarterback controversy."

Here's Bicknell's scouting report on what Flutie does for a NFL team:

"He makes the running game better. Everybody has to keep an eye on him and the defensive ends can't close down like they can with an immobile guy back there. He helps the offensive line with their protection because he escapes and he makes everybody around him better. All of a sudden, everyone knows who Eric Moulds is."

Bicknell is delighted that Kitna has come to a team that appreciates his intangibles as much as what he does on the field. That's another difference. While Flutie is fairly private, Kitna has always been involved with his teammates.

"Doug's not a big talker," Bicknell said. "He's not a big social guy. Jon has a knack for getting to know his offensive line and really getting involved in the team. Jon's a tremendous team guy. Flutie is just Flutie. He just plays and everybody else follows."

Bicknell can't wait to watch two of his favorites play Sunday. Two longshots on whom he rolled the dice. So he knows he won't be turning off the game early if it's a nice fall day in New Hampshire.

"In both cases, the teams aren't going to be saying, 'Let's get the hell out of here,' in the fourth quarter with those guys," Bicknell said.

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