Playoff trappings

12-5-03, 1:45 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

In the end, Jon Kitna's greatest contribution to the Bengals next to his 2003 Pro Bowl season may very well be his spiritual role modeling for the future touchdown tandem of Carson Palmer to Chad Johnson.

Kitna sees the irony of this week's AFC North championship game in Baltimore. It is two weeks shy of two years to that ugly sideline-shouting incident involving him and Johnson in the final dying breaths of a 16-0 loss to the Ravens in another dead-end season. Both men have admitted that moment galvanized their relationship and brought them closer together, so isn't it fitting that together they carry in Cincinnati's title hopes to the same hostile spot?

But Kitna doesn't think he's helped his backup quarterback that much this season when it comes to football. Palmer disagrees vehemently, and yet Kitna is just as adamant.

"I really don't think God has put me and Carson here at the same time for me to teach him a lot of football, because he's going to have a different game," Kitna said. "My game is more academic. The little things. He's going to take his game to the next level physically. He's more like Brett Favre. I think of myself as a Joe Montana-type. Not the end result, but just that type. I feel like if my offensive coordinator got sick and my quarterbacks coach lost his voice, I'd be OK."

Indeed, Palmer, the rookie who was supposed to be starting by now a year to the week he won the Heisman Trophy, thinks Kitna would make, "a great teacher, a great coach." How many guys win a Heisman and then sit behind a Pro Bowler? "He should get it unless he's ripped off because of the big-name guys. There are a lot of them in the conference.

"I've learned so much from watching him, especially how to keep your composure in a game," Palmer said. "He's showed me how to deal with certain concepts in our playbook and how to read it. How to understand different defenses that he's seen in the NFL and I've never seen before. There are 95 different coverages and 95 different defenses, and college there's 12. He's showing me what the mike linebacker does in these four coverages, and what the will does in that coverage. He's good at explaining why the defenses do the things they do.'

Head coach Marvin Lewis hopes Palmer is taking notes because Kitna is offering a great lab for a young quarterback to see it all. An 0-3 catcall start followed by a 7-2 run

in which the steel-belted play of the quarterback has absorbed all the hits and heat.

"The good thing is he's been able to see the ups and downs and the ins and outs, and what a fine line it is," Lewis said. "It's been a great experience because it shows how important the quarterback position is on a football team. I don't think you quite understand it until you get to the NFL."

The thing that has impressed Palmer is Kitna's resiliency.

"He just keeps battling back," Palmer said. "Nobody gives him a lot of respect. People overlook him a lot. He doesn't worry about that. He just keeps coming back and gets shocking wins in the fourth quarter."

Kita makes he and Palmer sound like the NFL version of "The Odd Couple." Kitna sits down before games and lists his favorite plays and his least favorite plays. He doesn't know if Palmer does all that, but he sees him as a gifted, tough-minded player who says, "Just give me the ball and I'll make a play." But Kitna does think he and Palmer are here together for a reason.

"Spiritually," Kitna said. "We're both Christians. He's getting a look at playing quarterback in the NFL. How does that look? What does that look like? Because there's a lot of responsibility that goes with that."

One of the things NFL quarterbacks have to do is what Kitna did two years ago with a rookie named Chad Johnson. After a brutal game in Baltimore on Dec. 23, 2001, the Bengals fell to 4-10 as Johnson got outmaneuvered by cornerback Duane Starks on one Kitna throw early in the game, and then dropped two long touchdown balls, including what should have been a 96-yarder.

When an angry Kitna approached Johnson after his last gaffe to tell him he didn't appreciate his inattention, it all unraveled on TV in ugliness.

"Obviously, there was the blow-up on the sidelines and the emotion of it, but what happened after was the key," Kitna said. "When I came to him on Wednesday and apologized not for the content of what I said, but the way I said it and the way I delivered it. That let him explain myself and me explain myself and for us to understand we're both trying to get to the same place."

Kitna wanted to let Johnson how much potential he had and how hard he had to work to tap it. Suffice to say they have been close ever since, but Kitna said the real bonding came at the start of the next season, when both weren't starting. Kitna remembers standing on the sidelines with him for those first four games and pointing out things for him to learn.

When Tampa Bay came to town, Kitna made sure Johnson watched his own cousin, Bucs receiver Keyshawn: "I told him to even watch him stretch to see how hard he is preparing for this football game. . . There was a respect that came from all that. I want to win. I would like to think I want to win as badly as anyone on this football team. I don't mind taking the heat when something is wrong. I have a problem when I feel like you're not giving your best effort."

Johnson doesn't want to talk about 2001 in Baltimore. He wants to talk about 2003 in Baltimore. But wide receiver Peter Warrick saw the difference.

"Sometimes it's nice to make a person mad so they can tell you how they really feel," Warrick said. "And ever since CJ and Kit went at it with each other, they've been clicking with each other. They know they want and need to be on the same page. They don't want to be on TV embarrassing each other. They want to be on ESPN celebrating each other and everybody rooting for each other."

That's what quarterbacks do. Palmer sound likes he's taking notes, but when he takes the exam is anyone's guess. Timetable? Out the window. If the Bengals win their next three games, they win the AFC North and host a play-off game. Palmer and Kitna may be a better fit in the locker room than under the salary cap in 2004, but don't they have to keep Kitna at the same $4.5 million price tag? Or not?

As Kitna said, "there's no reason to even talk about next year as far as the team is concerned and everybody else. Leave it like it is and let next year handle itself when next year comes."

Palmer: "It just all changes because I don't think anybody was expecting us to win our division. But the spot we're in and the way we're playing and the things we're doing, there isn't anything else to worry about other than winning the division and going to the playoffs. We're not thinking about two years or even two games down the road. It's all about this week."

Sounds like Palmer has Chapter One down cold.

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