10-1-02, 3 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
With indications pointing to Jon Kitna becoming the Bengals' third starting quarterback in Sunday's fifth game of the season, all the things that Kitna feared when Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau declared a quarterback competition back in May have come true.
The offense, better only than the expansion Houston Texans in the 32-team NFL, has sputtered with a lack of continuity. Players have split into the factions of their favorite quarterback. No dominant team leader has emerged because no one knows whom the quarterback is from week-to-week.
"They've created a monster," said Kitna Monday of the revolving quarterback system. "The biggest leadership position is the quarterback and that's not the case because we messed around with it and shuffled guys in and out. You can't do that at quarterback and win in this league and this organization has proven that. . . .You have to pick one guy and stick with him. . .I think we're seeing the labor pains of (the preseason quarterbacks derby)."
Kitna won't turn down a start, but he's not interested if it is a trial for one half.
"I do want the job if you say I'm your guy," Kitna said. "But if you're going to say if you've got no points in the first half, I'll probably make a change, I don't want any part of that."
Right tackle Willie Anderson, who has had eight different starting quarterbacks in seven seasons, and Akili Smith, one of the three quarterbacks who shared the training camp snaps, agreed with Kitna Monday on an issue that has doomed the club since Boomer Esiason went to the ABC-TV booth after the 1997 season.
"Teams game plan against you not being stable at quarterback," said Anderson of the league's third worst passing offense that averages 147 yards per game. "I've been thinking about that. Since he's said it, I agree with him."
LeBeau has yet to decide who will start against the Colts, but both coaches and management indicated Monday this 0-4 season can still be saved and there is one quarterback left who hasn't lost a start and that's Kitna. Last year's starter in a season that began 2-0, 3-2, 4-3, the Bengals finished 6-10 with five of the victories coming when Kitna led them to LeBeau's goal of 23 points in a game. That seems like the glory days compared to this season 5.8 points per game average.
Kitna played the last half of the Falcons' blowout and hit 18 of 36 passes for 136 yards, the best numbers of the trio that
included Smith's 12-for-33, 117-yard effort in last Sunday's two halves against the Bucs.
At some point, if we don't start playing up to standard," said Bengals President Mike Brown, "I think we have to start looking at people who could mean something to our future. I put Akili in that category."
But with "rebuilding," a dirty word for a head coach in the last year of his deal and the Bengals still only two games out of first place in the AFC North, the time might not be now to find out about Smith.
"The coaches want to solidify the position as soon as possible," said Brown, who wouldn't say if he knows Sunday's starter.
"There's three quarters of the season to play. I would say there is time to do more than look at just another quarterback," Brown said. "What I would like to see happen, is who ever goes in there takes hold and makes it work. If it doesn't work out, the coaches have chosen how they want to go about it and if it worked out, it will stay that way. I don't know if we're going to go seven games that way, which is what we did last year. I think that's a little too long."
Even as LeBeau stuck with Kitna during last year's seven-game losing streak of two touchdown passes and 13 interceptions, Kitna counseled patience with a new quarterback, new offense and young receivers.
"I told you guys, I told you. I told you last year. I told you in training camp," Kitna said. "(LeBeau said) It's all good and all healthy for a quarterback competition. Yeah, see how much better it made us? We've got the same team sitting here. Lot of good this quarterback controversy did this year. Lot of good. Hey, stick with the kid. If he isn't hurt, leave him in. You're going to have to stick with something.
"All I know," Kitna said, "is that the teams we play against do not respect a thing that we do. . .They don't respect us."
The frustrated Kitna said he even went to LeBeau in the preseason and told him he was willing to be the No.3 quarterback so a decision could be made quickly and adhered to because he felt the team had to know sooner rather than later.LeBeau, who said he was simply looking for the best thing for the team, didn't take him up on it.
"You can't be worried about hurting people's feelings," Kitna said.
Kitna didn't think Gus Frerotte got much of a chance before being benched after the season's first 10 quarters. The last time Frerotte was seen, he was going to get his sprained thumb examined by a specialist and he was nowhere in the discussion. Anderson compares him to Neil O'Donnell as QBs signed hurriedly in the offseason. O'Donnell signed 10 days before 1998 training camp. Frerotte signed the day before this past May minicamp and both ended up Opening Day starters.
"Neil couldn't lead this team," Anderson said. "He came in after minicamp and had to learn a new offense. He couldn't lead this team. Not knocking Gus, he tries his butt off, he plays hard, and I truly think he cares. It's just he's new to everything. Trying to learn a new offense that we put in last year, and other guys might be ahead of him on it.
"The big thing is knowing your guys," Anderson said. "Jon knows the guys. He can relate to them. He's had the arguments with them."
Kitna said it's disappointing he wasn't able to keep the momentum building from his 2001 finish, when he set the Bengals' record with 751 passing yards in back-to-back games in two victories.
"(The club) haven't made a decision on who the quarterback is week to week?" said a perplexed Kitna. "All I know is that last year, teams took us seriously. The guys who were with me, they knew what they were going to get with me."
Anderson talks about being able to look in a quarterback's eyes in the huddle and know if he's in sync with his team and scheme. He feels that way with Kitna, simply because he had 15 games with him last year. That was time enough for them to work out their routine.. While Kitna huddled with the coaches between series, Anderson talked to the offense.
Smith also thinks there has to be one guy and that he thinks they're reaching the point after his four seasons here that they have to make a decision on him. He knows his salary cap hit after next June 1 (probably less than $2 million) is finally quite manageable.
"I've been pinballing around this place for four years," Smith said.
Brown sees both sides of what he calls "a philosophical debate." There are guys whose stability with one team has been a hallmark. But he also saw Tommy Maddox come off then bench to give the Steelers a win Sunday.
"I've seen it work both ways," Brown said. "It's the chicken and the egg argument. Is it not working because he's the quarterback playing, or are you having problems because we don't play the quarterback?
"He makes a rational case and a strong one," said Brown of Kitna. "But on the other hand, can you sit by while the offense averages four points a click?"