QB-receiver connection sounds clear

3-26-02, 8:00 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The season stopped, but the question never did.

People have peppered Peter Warrick, the Bengals leading receiver, everywhere he's been:

Don't all you guys need is a new quarterback?

Now Warrick is back in Cincinnati to start his off-season program for the next 14 weeks that nets him $100,000 and he's not so sure about that. There are other things he'd like to see for sure. Such as more time lined up on the outside and the Bengals using a two-minute, no huddle offense almost exclusively.

But when it came to quarterback Jon Kitna, Warrick literally called on him.

"He's going to be a whole lot better," said Warrick as the embattled Kitna heads into the second year of the offense. "I kind of like what we've got. I'm going to call Kit right now."

So right in the middle of the hot wings and the saucy baby back ribs of a Jillian's lunch, Warrick grabbed his cell phone and punched in Kitna's phone number.

"Hey Kit," Warrick said to a voice in Tacoma, Wash., not sure of his caller. "Who do you want it to be?"

Then Warrick handed the phone to fellow receiver Chad Johnson, naturally tethered to another cell phone in which he said, "Wait a sec, that's my quarterback on the other line."

"Those guys," Kitna said later. "Their cell phone bills must be unbelievable. It was good to hear from them, though, and that they're ready to go."

The static that came between him and his receivers last season seems to have been cleared in the last two games during which Kitna threw for 751 yards while the NFL's lowest scoring offense offered 49 points and two victories.

At least, that's what everyone is saying. Kitna does have a wary eye on a front office that tried to sign Trent Dilfer and Elvis Grbac and approached the Patriots about a trade for Drew Bledsoe. But with Dilfer back in Seattle, Grbac retired, and the Bengals unwilling to give up a first-round draft pick for Bledsoe, the quarterback chatter is virtually dead and Kitna looks to be No. 1 again.

Or is he?

"When it gets quiet, that's when stuff happens," Kitna said. "When there's a lot of talk, nothing happens. I could understand Bledsoe. He's been one of the three or four top quarterbacks in the league. But those other two guys, that's another matter. I'm as good as them. I just need time to work with everyone and it's mutual. That's all I've been asking for is keeping it intact for a few years. You should see some great strides this year."

Barring an improbable chain of events rivaling the Herschel Walker deal Kitna is going to get his second chance in the system. At least two of his receivers are going to give him the chance. Besides, they've got their own battles with receivers coach Steve Mooshagian saying any of the six could conceivably end up starting.

"I don't want to put everything on one person's shoulders," said Johnson after a rocky rookie season. "I just want to become a better player and make Coach (Bob)

Bratkowski and Coach (Dick) LeBeau happy. Period. I just want to be a complete player and a difference maker."

It was Johnson who got into an ugly shouting sideline confrontation with Kitna in the dying moments of the 16-0 loss in Baltimore Dec. 23. Asked if he has to be a kinder, gentler leader this time around, Kitna said, "I don't think I was a tyrant. I think guys began to understand that when I got on somebody, I wasn't getting on them just to get on somebody. I think we've learned each other that way."

The week after the Ravens' debacle, Kitna and Johnson made up publicly and privately and earlier this week, Johnson asked, "You guys still on that? That's over with."

But what is just beginning is a fierce competition at wide receiver. Not a roster battle because the six guys (Warrick, Johnson, Darnay Scott, Danny Farmer, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Ron Dugans) look pretty safe. But a battle for starting jobs and playing time.

Johnson is also in town to pick up a workout bonus, but he's been working out for about three weeks in California. After Mooshagian watched Johnson run three 40-yard dashes in Los Angeles last week at 4.29, 4.30 and 4.32 seconds and then headed across town to see Farmer and Houshmandzadeh train, he issued a challenge to the starting tandem of Scott and Warrick.

"The way all the receivers finished the season and pushed each other, there's not much difference between one and six," Mooshagian said. "P Dub and Darnay have to improve from where they were, as does everyone else. We're going to keep it ultra positive this time around. We've got six talented guys "

Warrick says he'd be working out even if there were no money involved "because I want to get better. I want to get more than the 70 catches I had last year."

He also wants more than 9.5 yards per catch and one touchdown, so he is lobbying to "mix it up," and play more on the outside in search of big plays instead of always lining up in the slot. But the Bengals aren't so sure his average straight-ahead speed and his 5-11 195 pounds are suited so well to the outside. Although they like Warrick's elusiveness in the slot, they also see the 6-3, 215-pound Farmer as a prototypical slot receiver and that's where the questions begin. How many balls are there to go around?

The one thing that can get more receivers on the field is the spread formations of a hurry-up offense. While Bratkowski would never use a heavy diet of the stuff with a Pro Bowl running back like Corey Dillon, the second-year offensive coordinator agrees it can be an effective change of pace

"If we practice the no huddle, our endurance will get better," Warrick said. "As you get tired, the defense gets tired, too, and the defense won't change as much as the offense. And all the receivers are good and know the offense, so we just put up our hand and come out for a rest."

Johnson, who finished with 28 catches for 329 yards and a touchdown, is trying to avoid the injury like the broken collarbone that wiped out four games. He clearly wasn't the same guy after the injury, which came on the heels of 120 yards in back-to-back games. He had 181 yards in the seven games after the injury.

"I was really on a roll when I got hurt," Johnson said. "I was in a nice groove, but when I came back I didn't have the same arm movement when I ran and I was afraid to do some certain things. Now I'm just trying to pick up where I left off and become a more disciplined receiver."

Johnson admitted his shaky outing in Baltimore (two drops for about a total of 120 yards and getting outfoxed for an end-zone interception by cornerback Duane Starks) was in part due to "tripping out there, not being focused. But I'm learning everytime I go out there,"

Warrick spent his offseason in Florida watching his five-year-old daughter learn to play T-Ball and cheerlead. He enjoyed going to the games and practices and had a quick scouting report from the diamond.

"She's fast. She's quick. Of course, she's a Warrick," Dad said. "Sometimes she'll be on third base and she doesn't know exactly when to throw the ball and where to throw it, but she's learning."

Kitna and his receivers know they better figure out where the ball is going this season.

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