QB picture set for now

10-21-03, 7:05 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

For once, the Bengals quarterback situation is ordered like your local library instead of one of those nine-person presidential debates.

(Remember last year when the obscure practice squad signing of Joe Germaine touched off enough angry comments by all the other quarterbacks to sound like a George Steinbrenner press statement?)

Jon Kitna has survived withering fan criticism to post numbers that put him among the league leaders with starter-worthy numbers in what may be the best stretch of his career. With Sunday's High Noon appointment against his former team looming, Kitna has fittingly made peace with Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren as he heads into the showdown with a 85.4 passer rating that is nearly 13 points better than his career rating and a percentage point better than Holmgren guy Matt Hasselbeck.

Rookie Carson Palmer, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner and overall No. 1 draft pick, took his rightful spot as the No. 2 quarterback Sunday.

No. 3 quarterback Shane Matthews quietly said all the right things after his demotion instead of surfacing on the 6 o'clock news spouting all the toxic things.

"He's got all the potential in the world. He's as talented a guy I've ever been around," Matthews said of Palmer Monday. "But it still comes to getting out when the bullets are flying on Sunday. When he gets his chance, he'll do some things great. But he'll also make mistakes. It's just human nature. We'll wait and see. Hopefully not in the near future. Jon played very well yesterday."

For the second time in three games Sunday against the Ravens, Kitna led the Bengals to a win with three touchdown passes and no interceptions. His nine touchdown passes are tied for third in the AFC (more then Drew Bledsoe, Tom Brady, Rich Gannon, Tommy Maddox), his 94 fourth-quarter rating is third ahead of Steve McNair, and his 97.3 rating on third down is second only to the ESPN exploits of McNair.

On Monday, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said Kitna made only two bad reads against the Ravens, which is presumably far fewer than a rookie would make.

"I think this is the best decision-making I've ever made," Kitna said. "I think I'm playing better and making better decisions than even the results and my stats would show. I'm seeing the field better than I ever have. . .They're throwing everything at us. We're seeing every coverage you could see and all the blitzes. We're seeing everything. My vision seems a lot more clearer."

Kitna gives some of that credit to Holmgren, the coach in Seattle he felt unfairly

benched him in the middle of the 2000 season after he led the Seahawks to the 1999 playoffs. They left on fairly icy terms when Holmgren made it pretty clear he wanted to go in a different direction. Six days after Holmgren traded a first-round pick for Hasselbeck and the Packers' first-round pick, Kitna signed with the Bengals in March of 2001.

"It's unfair to say that Seattle wasn't interested in bringing him back because they did approach us," said Carl Lopez, Kitna's agent at the time. "We never got around to talking numbers, but there was some interest there. I think in the end Mike wanted to go with his own guy and he knew Hasselbeck so well from Green Bay. I think Jon realized Mike knew a lot of things and I think Mike liked Jon and knew that he had played pretty well for him."

Kitna, the Tacoma, Wash., native, now has a better relationship with Holmgren after phoning him last season. He didn't like the way he treated him, but he calls Holmgren, "a genius," and says they've had some nice conversations lately.

"I made a point to call him to ask him to forgive me for not doing my part to make it work there," Kitna said. "I was kind of stubborn, too. . .I didn't like the way he was treating me, so I wasn't going to talk to him, either. It was kind of like everybody on the team knew he wasn't being fair to me, so I just held on to that instead of trying to make the situation better. I never commented publicly on it or demeaned him, or hurt his reputation, (but). . .I should have been trying to make it better going to him and saying, 'I don't think that's fair.'"

Kitna, a devout Christian, said he made the phone call to Holmgren simply because he is maturing in his faith in an effort to follow scripture instead of reading it.

"God continually put it in my heart that you're never going to play the way I want in this league until you forgive him," Kitna said, "And until you don't own up to your part, as long as you hold onto that bitterness, you're not going to be quite the player you should be."

Looking back, Kitna says Holmgren taught him so much about game management, the clock, field position, and winning the games a quarterback is supposed to win. But he insists he isn't driven to have another big game just to show Holmgren. He joked that he'd like to call him this week to pick his brain.

"This is such a big game for us," Kitna said. "If we win this football game, we have a chance to get on a serious roll."

While Kitna talks reason, Matthews simply talks to Palmer. The two quiet, laid-back guys ("If we're in a car, you don't hear much," Matthews said) have been chatting up a storm during games on the sidelines. Matthews, the 11-year veteran, spends much of his time with the rookie while Kitna is locked in talks with quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese. While they look at the photos from the last series, Matthews tries to answer Palmer's questions.

"He's learning more about defenses," said Matthews, who didn't notice any more urgency from Palmer Sunday even though he was a play away from playing. "I think the more you watch games from the sidelines on Sunday the more you understand about playing the quarterback position in this league."

But Matthews knows Palmer is going to have to play to really learn, and not he. He's working on a one-year contract, but he said he'd like to return next season and says how Lewis has turned around this team's attitude is "exciting." With Kitna having another year left on his contract, Matthews could very well be elsewhere if the Bengals opt to find and groom another quarterback.

Matthews knows all about the fluid world of NFL quarterbacking after his curious offseason. He nearly signed with Minnesota before hooking on with Tampa Bay, but the Buccaneers cut him after they surprisingly took Chris Simms in the draft. Yes, he wondered if that might have been him throwing bombs to Randy Moss instead of Gus Frerotte a few weeks back.

"In this business, you never know. I'm just going to do what I can to help this team win," Matthews said. "You can't look back because things change drastically in the NFL from day to day. I feel like I'll be playing somewhere next year. I'd like to come back here. We'll wait and see."

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