11-29-02, 6:30 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Warren Moon is still watching Jon Kitna like he did when he watched the kid break in with the Seahawks all those years ago and the past seven games are no surprise to him.
For a guy who figures he played his best football between the ages of 33 and 40, Moon thinks the 30-year-old Kitna is where the Bengals can stake their future.
"Not only does he know the offense inside and out," Moon said the other day, "but he's a guy who can teach it to the other people you bring in. He's tough, smart. He always knows where to go with the ball. He's at about that age where it comes together for a quarterback. But except for about three or four quarterbacks in this league, 80 percent of what they do is based on the people around them."
Kitna also has his supporters in the locker room. Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon is adamant about having fullback Lorenzo Neal return next season, ("If he goes, I'm on the same plane with him"), and he'll also go to bat for Kitna. With Dillon under contract for three more years and the receivers all coming back, Kitna and his two years left are excited about the continuity.
"If he's the guy next year, I've got no gripes," Dillon said. "He's
been productive for us, and we've got the same kind of approach. He's a competitor always fighting you who hates to lose and I'm the same kind of guy. He's a winner and, like me, I think he's getting better. Like a fine wine."
It looked like Kitna was dying on the vine while Gus Frerotte and Akili Smith started the first four games of the season in which the Bengals averaged 5.8 points per game and were at the bottom or near the bottom of every meaningful category. And those that aren't so meaningful.
But with an 88.4 passer rating and a 67-percent completion rate in his seven starts, Kita has outplayed his statistical past and has people wondering if he's the next Rich Gannon, or Jeff Garcia, or Trent Green.
Just give a pretty competent thirtysomething veteran the same cast and the same scheme for more than a year, and he can put up better-than-average-numbers. Or so it would seem.
"That's the key for any quarterback and that's why it's been so hard for (quarterbacks) the past few years," Moon said. "Free agency takes that all away with people coming in and out of the program. But Jon is in that same system we had in Seattle with Bob (Bratkowski) and I think you're seeing the benefits of it."
With the Bengals' numbers taking off under Kitna in his seven starts, he has been good enough that Bengals President Mike Brown is now hesitant about changing offensive schemes. That doesn't necessarily mean he won't change coaches and Brown has emphasized he hasn't made any decisions there, but the Bengals have become a factor on offense.
If the numbers Kitna has engineered in his starts were spread out over the 11 games the Bengals have played, they would have the eighth best passing team in the league. They would also be 15th in the NFL in scoring offense, 12th in rushing, sixth in sacks allowed, and fourth in completion percentage.
Of course, they only have one victory, which makes things difficult for Brown to square with the public. But, to have a quarterback finish the season with a 88 passer rating solves that problem for at least next year.
Yet Kitna's career rating coming into the season was 71.2. In the next five games he tries to prove he's over the hump like the 36-year-old Gannon, the 32-year-old Garcia and the 32-year-old Green.
"We'll see," Kitna said. "I know I can play in this league and this is the first chance I've had to play with the same guys in the same system."
Kitna, who has thrown for 11 touchdowns and nine interceptions in the seven starts, actually had a better seven-game run in Seattle to open the 1999 season. He had a 94.5 rating with 12 touchdowns and four interceptions.
"Then Joey Galloway came back (from a contract holdout) and things weren't the same," Kitna said. "We had already established our identity and he came back and tried to do some different things and it didn't work."
Kitna finished the last nine games with a 67.2 rating and ended up in coach Mike Holmgren's doghouse before a 2000 season in which, "We weren't very good, we had no speed at receiver," and the season went about a month before he got benched.
"He and Holmgren butted heads," Moon said. "There were times Jon got himself in trouble because he's such a competitor and he would try to make the big play and he'd have the big turnover or fumbled snap.
"I always felt if he calmed down, it would really help him," Moon said. "He would throw a touchdown pass and run into the end zone and pound the receiver. But your temperament has to be pretty much the same."
Bratkowski has probably been Kitna's biggest booster in Cincinnati and their call for continuity, at least for now, seems justified. Kitna has said ever since last year that of his 22 interceptions that trailed only Green and Peyton Manning in the league, only eight were in his control.
"Jon is a guy who anticipates," Bratkowski said. "He anticipates the receiver getting to the spot and he throws it with that anticipation. So if there's a wrong route or something happens, it's going to look bad."
Moon, now a CBS Radio sideline reporter on Monday nights, served as Kitna's model on how a NFL quarterback should behave on the field and in the locker room. If there have been rumblings about his arm strength and stats, the way Kitna has conducted himself as a leader has never been questioned.
When he stands up in front of his locker and says something for his teammates, it's because he saw Moon do it. When he put his around Chad Johnson's shoulder after the Indy loss, it's because he saw Moon do it. When he studies for an extra half hour, he saw Moon do it.
"I still think back to the things I saw him do and they still help me," Kitna said. "There'd be a week we were playing a high-powered offense and Warren would say, 'Maybe I'll have to take a few more shots downfield this week.' Stuff like that, from experience."
Kitna also remembered how Moon believed in his arm and how he wasn't going to sell out running "because he knew what he was."
Maybe Kitna is in the process finding out about himself.
"He's got a strong arm," said Moon, and when told Kitna's arm strength is the biggest knock on him in Cincinnati, Moon said, "Believe it or not, it's stronger than half or most of the guys in the league. He may not have a great deep ball, but his intermediate ball is good."
Dillon, Moon's fellow first-ballot Pro Football Hall of Fame candidate from Seattle's University of Washington, likes the guy's grit.
Of course, Kitna is from neighboring Tacoma.
"If you're from Washington," Dillon said, "it means you're tough."
Kitna and the Bengals find out just a little bit more about him Sunday.