Mitchell patiently waits

7-31-01, 3:30 P.M.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

GEORGETOWN, Ky. _ Jon Kitna got the nod, but only by a nose. And Scott Mitchell still has his foot in the door.

"Absolutely. No doubt in my mind I'm doing well enough to start," Mitchell said before Tuesday's practice here at Georgetown College.

But Mitchell, 33, the consummate 12-year professional, continues to be unfazed during this strangest of training camp for quarterbacks.

"This week?" Mitchell said when asked if he was disappointed he didn't get the start. "No. Not this week."

That's because this Saturday is the pre-season opener. The only thing ever decided in a pre-season opener is the announcing crew.

But Mitchell is already day-dreaming about starting next week's game in Detroit, where he led the Lions to three playoffs in the mid-90s.

Kitna, tapped by head coach Dick LeBeau Tuesday, knows Saturday is early.

"It's like starting the scrimmage," Kitna said. "It's positive. I hope I can go out there and continue to earn it. But all that matters is where you are after (the pre season)."

For the moment, Kitna and Mitchell are extremely close. Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski said Kitna got the call "by a nose. It wasn't a heads or tails thing." Plus, Akili Smith is a good outing away from making it even tighter.

A week ago, Mitchell was supposed to be the No. 3 quarterback while Kitna and Smith battled it out among their millions. At least that's what Mitchell thought the perception was.

Now, he senses a shift. A

quick poll of the locker room shows Mitchell has broad support from teammates who remember he pitched the Bengals to two wins on a bad knee.

"I don't think they feel uncomfortable with me," Mitchell said of the coaches. "I think it depends on who you talk with. Until you get in there and do a good job and you do it on a consistent basis, the perceptions aren't going to change one way or the other. I think given the opportunity, I can change people's perception."

LeBeau won't say how much of an opportunity Mitchell and Smith will get Saturday. He says Kitna will probably play more than a quarter, and he's not going to hold him or any of his players to a certain number of plays.

"You do want to get into a rhythm and we've been told there won't be a structure," Kitna said. "There'll just be a feel of it. If you have two long drives and are in there for 17 plays, maybe you're out. I don't know. All I want to do is put points on the board."

Which is what Mitchell wants to do. If gets the chance.

"For the first game, one quarter is enough," Mitchell said. "It depends if they're going to have me hand the ball off all the time. Then they're not going to get a real a good feel for what I can and can't do."

In disputing a spate of media reports, LeBeau says he has enough of a feel to say he's pleased with all four quarterbacks and that he's not ready to go after Denver's Gus Frerotte. Given that Frerotte blew them off for Denver in a contract wrangler, it's a pretty good bet they stick where they are.

"I underline that it's early and you want to see what these guys can do in a football game," LeBeau said.

The presence of LeBeau is the major reason Mitchell chose to re-sign with a team that already had to starting quarterbacks. He's confident LeBeau knows what he's all about.

"I don't think there's a question about whether I can play or can't play, to be honest with you," Mitchell said. "I came in last year under some tough circumstances and made the most if it. You do what you can do and if they make what they feel is the best decision for the team, you have to abide by that decision no matter what capacity you're in."

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