4-22-01, 12:40 p.m. **
Updated:** 4-22-01, 10:05p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
The Bengals quarterback derby is now a three-man race.
After sleeping on a possible spot in Pittsburgh Saturday night, quarterback Scott Mitchell decided Sunday to return to the Bengals and his relationship with head coach Dick LeBeau.
After quarterbacking Cincinnati to a 2-2 finish last season, Mitchell was stunned when he couldn't reach a contract extension and the club signed Jon Kitna last month to compete with Akili Smith.
Mitchell has said it would be tough returning under these circumstances, but he agreed to a one-year contract that is probably in the $800,000 range he played for last year.
"I think if they let me play and I'm healthy, I can do the job," Mitchell said. "Dick gave me a shot last year and I think he'll give me a fair chance to compete"
Bengals President Mike Brown said Smith and Kitna would get first crack at winning the job, but also said, "I can't predict how it turns out. Last year when Scott came here, no one thought he was going to be our starter, but he ended up being our quarterback. Could that happen again? There's always that chance.
"When we played with him last year, we were
competitive and won some games," Brown said. "He's a good person. He's an established veteran player."
Mitchell's signing puts Scott Covington's roster spot in big jeopardy. Although LeBeau didn't rule out keeping four quarterbacks, it's highly unlikely.
LeBeau is extremely pleased Mitchell is back. He highly regards the 33-year-old's professionalism.
"He will play hurt for you," LeBeau said. "He'll subject personal aims for the good of the team. He didn't get a chance to play here for a long time, but he didn't complain, That was nothing but a plus and when he got an opportunity to play. . .he played hurt and I respect that."
The feeling is mutual. Mitchell's play helped LeBeau get re-hired. LeBeau's decision to bench Smith for Mitchell gave life to Mitchell's career.
Mitchell was interested in Dallas, where his college coach at Utah, Jack Reilly, is the offensive coordinator. But Cowboys head coach Dave Campo opted for youth behind Tony Banks.
Mitchell visited Pittsburgh last week and was set to sign a deal with the Steelers, but LeBeau won out at the last minute.
"I felt like I knew Dick and he gave me a shot once before," Mitchell said. "There were too many question marks in Pittsburgh."
Mitchell had a poorer passer's rating (50.8) than Smith's AFC-low of 52.8, but didn't have enough attempts to qualify. His backers say he played the last four games in miserable weather with a sprained left knee that cost him one start and was good enough to win two games for a struggling team.
The agreement means he won't be headed to a fourth team in four years.
"I love the fact I'm going back to a place that I know and where I feel comfortable," Mitchell said.