8-26-01, 8:35 p.m.
Updated: 8-27-01, 1:30 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Jon Kitna became the Bengals' fourth Opening Day quarterback in as many years and the ninth different starter in 10 seasons Monday when head coach Dick LeBeau called his summer-long quarterbacks derby.
But it was a photo finish with Kitna, who turns 29 next month, edging Scott Mitchell, 33, the 12-year veteran who led the Bengals to a 2-2 finish last season.
"The one thing I pride myself on is doing whatever it takes to get the job done," Kitna said when he got the call. "It's not always going to be pretty with me. I'm not the prototypical drop-back passer, NFL type of guy that everybody is looking for. I don't have all the numbers. But I think I have the intangibles that you need at quarterback."
The guy who is the prototype, Akili Smith, has now officially gone from franchise quarterback to No. 3, with Mitchell as the backup. Smith said Monday his sore throwing shoulder is not much better and he doesn't expect to play in Thursday's pre-season finale against the Colts.
Smith's mild case of tendinitis, which has taken him out of the last 10 practices and Saturday's 20-10 loss to the Bills, typifies the struggle the Bengals have had in finding a franchise quarterback. Since taking David Klingler 10 drafts ago, eight different quarterbacks have started for the Bengals. Nine counting Boomer Esiason's 1997 reincarnation. Which makes Kitna the 10th in 10 years.
"I have high regard for all our quarterbacks," LeBeau said. "I think this gives us the best chance to win."
But Mitchell was clearly devastated.
I'm disappointed. I'm hurt about it," said Mitchell, who led the Bengals to their only pre-season win in Detroit with 17 second-half points. "I couldn't really sit here and say I'll do everything to get ready. That in this league you need more than one guy to make it through a season. I don't feel that way today. I really don't feel like it. I need my day of mourning.
"I felt I had a good camp," Mitchell said. "I felt really good about it. I feel comfortable in this offense. I like it. I believe the players and the coaches have confidence in me that I can do the job."
Kitna didn't look pretty Saturday, completing 12 of 24 passes in the second half, fumbling twice, and failing to generate any points. Mitchell also hurt himself with two interceptions that gave Buffalo 10 points during an 8-for-19 effort in the first half for 97 yards.
"All three guys had their moments in the preseason," said Jim Lippincott, Bengals' director of pro/college personnel. "All three have been hampered when they started pre-season games because of downfalls at other position groups and it's kind of clouded their performance.
"But that's just the game evaluation," Lippincott said. "You have to take into account what's happened in practices and how they handle themselves in meetings and how they are the huddle. That's what made it a close call."
After watching films Sunday, Bengals' officials felt the quarterbacks didn't get a lot of support from the rest of the offense because of assignment errors and route mistakes.
Bengals President Mike Brown thought the camera showed it wasn't all the quarterback's fault.
"No matter who (the quarterback) is," Brown said, "we'll take a step up from where we were last year at this time."
In the end, it probably came down to Kitna's
mobility, arm, and familiarity with the scheme new offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski brought from Seattle.
"Kitna brings you competitiveness, experience, mobility and those are some things you could say about Scott Mitchell," Lippincott said. "But with Kitna and Mitchell it probably came down to arm strength," Lippincott said. "And Jon probably has a better chance running us out of a bad play than Scott does."
After going 18-15 as a starter who led Seattle to the 1999 playoffs, Kitna signed a four-year deal this past March that contained a $4 million signing bonus and could max at $12 million.
Kitna emerged extremely upbeat Saturday. He knows the big knock on him is his NFL-leading 17 fumbles last season. He recovered one of his two fumbles Saturday and the one he lost came on a blind-side sack.
"I think the biggest thing for me at this point in the season is to be able to see the field," Kitna said. "Noticing coverages, not being surprised by things and I felt like that was a positive for me tonight.
" I think even though sometimes when you get sacked a lot of times it's not your fault, but I have to protect the football," Kitna said. "And that's such a hard thing to do because when you're trying to move, it's hard to keep two hands on the ball. You don't want fumbles. That puts your defense in a bad spot, (so I'm) trying to improve on that."
The Bengals have always liked the fact Kitna can move, but there's no question Mitchell has moved the team when he's been in there the last two games.
Mitchell produced 17 second-half points in Detroit and could have had another 17 against Buffalo in the first half if Scott caught the touchdown and Neil Rackers made a 45-yard field goal.
Everyone saw Mitchell had a touchdown pass dropped by Darnay Scott. But the film also showed he could have had the moves of Michael Vick and still not escaped a safety created by a miscommunication between left guard Matt O'Dwyer and left tackle Richmond Webb.
The tape also showed Mitchell's second interception, when he tried to hit Scott over the middle, was a blown play from when it was called.
Kitna had similar problems. He played most of his stint behind a back-up line that didn't pass protect as well as the first line. And, for example, on a key third-and-5 pass with 6:08 left in a 20-10 game, Kitna couldn't hook up with receiver Ron Dugans for the first down for a variety of reasons.
It looked like Kitna underthrew Dugans at about the Buffalo 30. But the coaches wish Dugans had run a crisper route and not been so deep. Kitna didn't blame Dugans. He thinks it's just a matter of getting used to his new receivers.
"I was trying to anticipate him when he was coming out of his break and I threw it and he obviously went a couple of yards deeper than I anticipated," Kitna said.
If Kitna flashed the scout's knocks on him, so did Mitchell with a wobbly pass on an out pattern to receiver Danny Farmer that got intercepted and nearly run back for a touchdown. Mitchell's arm strength has been questioned by scouts since his Detroit days, when a similar pass ended up in the hands of the Bengals' Corey Sawyer in overtime that gave Cincinnati a win in 1998.
Mitchell has pockets of support on an offense that remembers the pro's pro stability he brought last year. Kitna's arm and competitiveness also have their legions.
After charting every drop step and pass of minicamp, voluntary camp, and training camp, a decision has been processed.
"Very," Bratkowksi said.
Meanwhile, Smith asked the training staff again Sunday to give him a shot of cortisone in his right shoulder, which has a mild case of tendinitis. Again, he was turned down.
"It's not safe in the long term," said trainer Paul Sparling said. "You don't do that to a tendon."