QBs in Saturday showdown

8-23-02, 3:20 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

GEORGETOWN, Ky. _ They all bring something to this roulette table known as the Bengals quarterbacks derby that officially ends Saturday night against the Saints at Paul Brown Stadium.

Jon Kitna, Saturday night's starter and the presumed leader in the clubhouse, brings knowledge of the offense, the feistiness of a longshot NAIA All-American, and a disposition sunnier than Sesame Street.

"I'm not getting into what I bring to the table," Kitna said. "That brings up negatives and positives and I just want to focus on the positives."

Akili Smith, who has engineered the Bengals' two come-from-behind preseason victories, brings the breathtaking all-around physical skills of a player drafted third in the nation in 1999. He basically hasn't seen the light of day since his 2000 benching after going 2-9 as a starter.

"It seems like I'm stuck with that season because I didn't play well, but this is a completely different team," Smith said. "This year and last year there has been so much talent coming through here it's ridiculous and everyone knows that and can see that. It's a cold business."

Gus Frerotte, the free-agent pickup who has steered two different teams to playoffs as a starter and a backup, brings a major-league arm to a pop-gun offense.

At 31, with a tinge of gray in the training-camp beard, Frerotte is a seventh-round draft pick who went to the Pro Bowl and brings to the Bengals a seen-it-all-resume.

But he admits, he's never quite

seen a quarterback derby like this one.

I don't think it's been healthy for the team, even for us," Frerotte said here this week. "It's hard to let all three guys take equal reps. You're not getting the work done you should get done. But you've got to find the guy you want."

Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau plans to announce that guy Monday, 13 days before they open the season against the Chargers at PBS. At last check, it sounded like LeBeau would give all three a quarter each Saturday against the Saints behind the first offensive line, but "I want to see how the game goes."

With the nod expected to go to either Kitna or Frerotte, that means neither would have worked much more than a quarter in any pre-season game.

"No, not at all," said Frerotte when asked if that was enough to make an evaluation. "And the way it's looking, we're not going to get enough snaps. How can you judge a guy in a quarter? But we're going to find a way to deal with it and we're going to find a way to win with it."

In Indianapolis last Saturday night, Frerotte worked three series and Kitna one. The week before in Buffalo, Kitna worked three and Frerotte had two. Smith got the second half both times. But he wouldn't mind working with a first team that now has a legitimate starting left tackle and wide receivers with more than a combined 15 NFL catches, things he lacked on Opening Day 2000.

Smith, who turned 27 this past Wednesday, says he's also a different guy.

"I'm the same player, but I'm so much farther along mentally," he said. "The game has slowed down. I do really like this offense. I really like it. Nothing against the old offense. I'm just not the type of quarterback who can go one, two, three, four, in progressions. I like to be able to see what the coverage is and then go to the other side."

They have all brought things to the table this preseason.

Smith has averaged less than four yards per throw, but has moved around well enough to direct six scoring drives.

"Whatever the coaches want to do," Smith said. "It's tough being No. 3, but I said it coming in. I've got four chances in the preseason. I've got two left to fight and I'll fight. Until then, I don't care when I get in. If not this year, then next year. I'll be doing the same thing. Keep plugging to get the job."

Kitna has yet to throw a touchdown pass, but he's hit seven of his eight third-down passes, has no interceptions, and has completed 67 percent of his passes.

"I've done what they've asked," Kitna said. "When I came in this year, they wanted me to improve my completion percentage and cut down on my turnovers. I think I've done that."

Frerotte has thrown two interceptions, but he's also the first Bengals quarterback to register six yards per pass this century (6.2), and the only to throw a touchdown pass in the first half.

"I like to think my arm," Frerotte said of his strengths. "I've got a personality guys can get along with. I've handled a lot of situations and been in a lot of places and seen a lot of things. I like to think I'm the kind of guy that isn't going to get phased by a lot."

The fact he is still in the hunt in this very strange derby proves his point.

"There is," Frerotte said with the benefit of nine NFL seasons, "always something new."

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