McGee back in the game

9-21-01, 2:15 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

He has gone from Klingler to Kitna and Bengals tight end Tony McGee says "everything in between."

If there is an expert on the Bengals quarterback crisis, it's McGee. The dean of the Bengals' offense has touchdown catches from five quarterbacks (Jeff Blake, Boomer Esiason, Neil O'Donnell, Scott Mitchell, Jon Kitna) in his nine seasons.

In his first three years in the NFL, McGee never caught a touchdown pass from David Klingler. But it took McGee just 45 minutes to catch one from Kitna on the 25-yard pass on the last play of the third quarter that put the Bengals over the top in their 23-17 Opening Day victory over New England two weeks ago.

It's a long way from the six games he played with Esiason in 1997 that he uses as the benchmark for an offense. But it's a start. And he thinks Kitna and Mitchell give the offense that similar type of veteran cool.

McGee recalls that Boomer stretch in which he scored five touchdowns in five games and it seems so clear. Play-action off a Pro Bowl running game and find the receivers running under a coverage fearful of big play receivers.

That's what happened against the Patriots, when Kitna saw wide receivers Darnay Scott and Peter Warrick blanketed on the outside and McGee running so wide open down the middle that the closest people to him were officials.

It's what has to happen Sunday in the middle of the field if the Bengals are to move the ball against a Baltimore defense that has made as much history as a joint session of Congress.

"I still like the sloppy, ugly offense where you just run the ball and play-action it for five, six, seven, eight yards to the tight end," McGee said. "But there's something sexy about the outside. Everybody likes to see the ball go out there."

It's been a rarity during McGee's nine seasons in Cincinnati that have featured dwindling catching stats since his career-high of 55 in 1995.

He caught 52 in the past two seasons. But with the

return of Scott and the emergence of rookie Chad Johnson, as well as defenses hounding running back Corey Dillon, McGee believes the tight end has to be used more. It's usually good news when they get the ball to him. When he catches a touchdown, the Bengals are 10-9 in games McGee has scored his 20 career touchdowns.

"I think over the long haul, it's going to help us," McGee said. "If teams go back to what they have done against us in the past, with cover 2 to stop Darnay and Chad outside, we have to do it."

McGee knows because he has lived it. His scouting report down through the years on some of the men who would be the Bengals quarterback?

Klingler: "A prima donna. He wouldn't even eat lunch with us. He'd eat in his truck."

Blake: "Great long game, but we were limited when defenses took that away."

O'Donnell: "Neil was cool, but he was in a training camp competition (with Blake and Paul Justin) and he just never seemed to get in sync."

Akili Smith: "I like Akili. He hasn't had much of a chance to be successful. There was the holdout, then the trouble with the offense. He had the young receivers and shaky protection. And then the system changed after two years. I think this is the right system for Akili."

Kitna and Scott Mitchell: "I love Mitch and Kitna is the same kind of thing. NFL veterans. They do it the right way. Jon seems to be really calm. I think that's important because it's easy to get frazzled. Whoever is pulling the trigger, if he's calm, that helps the other guys."

In McGee's mind, there has never been anyone better pulling the trigger for the Bengals than Esiason in that magical second half of the '97 season. In the six games Esiason worked the majority of time, the Bengals never gained less than 327 yards and were 5-1.

"Blake was good, but I don't know what it was with Blake," McGee said. "With Boomer, guys would break a leg for him. Sometimes you don't get that with other guys in that spot. Maybe that's because he was such a vet. Maybe because he was such a good guy and just made everyone feel important."

McGee likes what Kitna brings to the table because. "Anyone can do the Xs and Os, it's the person that's important and everyone likes him."

McGee may also end up liking the system Kitna and offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski ran in Seattle in 1998.

With Kitna and Warren Moon taking snaps, they helped Christian Fauria set Seattle's season record for a tight end with 37 catches.

"To me, the tight end is big," Kitna said. "He opens it for everybody else. If you have a tight end being effective in the middle, the safety has to pay attention.

"Look at all the good teams," Kitna said. "(Mark) Chmura was big for Green Bay. Brent Jones for San Francisco. Last year with Shannon Sharpe in Baltimore. Denver always has two tight ends on the field and so does Indianapolis. It's huge."

McGee, who didn't catch his lone touchdown pass last season until the 13th game, has to at least like the numbers so far.

"If we can put up 23 points and get 100 yards rushing and 200 yards passing like we did against New England (157 and 196, respectively), you're going to have success," McGee said.

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