BY GEOFF HOBSON
In their effort to rescue the NFL's worst passing game, the Bengals turned to Seattle quarterback Jon Kitna and his .570 career winning percentage Thursday when they signed him to a four-year deal.
National sources put the contract at $7 million that includes a $4 million signing bonus and the ability to expand to $12 million if he maxes out in incentives and play time for a salary cap hit of $1.5 million in 2001.
The 6-2, 215-pound Kitna, who turns 29 early in the season, has a career starting record of 18-15 and in 1999 led the Seahawks to their only playoff appearance in a dozen seasons.
Like Akili Smith, the Bengals embattled franchise quarterback, Kitna was benched during the season. But when Brock Huard got hurt, Kitna came off the bench to lead a victory in Jacksonville in which he was named AFC Offensive Player of the Week. He finished the season 6-6 as a starter with 18 touchdown passes and 19 interceptions.
The scrappy Kitna is reunited with new Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski, his coordinator in Seattle during his first four NFL seasons, and he now faces head coach Dick LeBeau's "fair and honest competition," with Smith in an open tryout at training camp.
It also means the man who ended the season as Cincinnati's starting quarterback, Scott Mitchell, is all but out of the picture for 2001.
Under Bratkowski, Kitna led the NFL in pre-season passing in 1997 and won his first start later that year when he brought Seattle back from a 21-3 half-time deficit to a 22-21 victory in Oakland.
Kitna's agent, Seattle lawyer Carl Taylor Lopez, wouldn't divulge the terms, but he said the signing bonus put the deal over the top and that parts of the contract are conditional according to play time.
The Bengals offered Kitna a deal Wednesday during his visit to Paul Brown Stadum with his wife, Jennifer, and Lopez. They wanted to hold off so they could visit Denver Monday, but after talking with Jennifer Kitna told Lopez he wanted to come to Cincinnati.
It took about two phone calls with Bengals director of business development Troy Blackburn to get a deal done that Lopez called "generous."
"Once they decided Cincinnati was the place, Jon wanted to get it done and it fell into place quickly," Lopez said. "The thing that swayed it I believe were his meetings with Bob, (quarterbacks coach) Ken Anderson and Dick LeBeau."
Bengals coaches and brass felt the same way after meeting Kitna and it was a shift the agent for Broncos backup quarterback Gus Frerotte sensed Wednesday night.
"You could tell they were going in a different direction," said Cindrich, who went nose-to-nose with the Bengals for four days. "Certain parts of the contract were good, but there was also a down side that could mean death. The major concern was that he could die on the vine. You have to be on the field to produce and there were things that the team had all the control."
Which means the Bengals probably had an attractive offer to Frerotte in the first year with signing bonus and salary, but they didn't like the final number if he maxed out for play time and incentives.
"It was a fair negotiation and we move on," Cindrich said. "I like Kitna as a player myself."
Despite leading new coach Mike Holmgren into the playoffs two years ago, Kitna never felt secure under the new regime that took Huard out of the University of Washington with its second draft pick when it arrived in '99.
With the signing of a semi-starting quarterback, the Bengals are clearly giving Smith one last chance to make it.
But the Bengals need to see plenty after watching Smith go 3-12 as a starter throw three touchdown passes in his last 378 attempts. Kitna has thrown 49 touchdown passes in 33 starts.
But the Bengals haven't given up on Smith. And a major reason is because Bratkowski hasn't.
Bratkowski calls Smith's measurables, "exactly what you're looking for in an NFL quarterback. He's got it all." But Bratkowski wants Smith to combine his ample physical skills with the intangibles of the game.
Much like they have been mastered by Kitna.
Maybe Kitna left his visit to Cincinnati without a deal, but he left a strong impression again on Bratkowski.
"No. 1, he's got a great amount of poise. He never gets flustered," Bratkowski said. "He's a great leader. If you look at his career stats, they're pretty solid."
Bratkowski raves about Smith's "arm strength, size, speed, mobility," and leaves no doubt Smith gets a chance in his new playbook.
"Absolutely," Bratkowski said. "I told Jon if he came in, it's an open competition, no holds-barred and let the best man win. Akili's got the measurables. What has to be determined is how he approaches his profession, poise on game day, and his resiliency. I see a lot of hope in this guy."
Kitna is everything Smith is not. Smith, 25, out of the Pac-10 at Oregon, is the third pick in the 1999 NFL Draft. Kitna, 28, is an undrafted free agent out of the NAIA at Central Washington in 1996.
"That's all I've ever asked for in this league," said Kitna of the open competition when he met the Cincinnati media Wednesday. "When you come in as an undrafted free agent from a small college, all you want is an opportunity to compete."
But where Smith and Kitna have a common bond is both got benched this season. The Bengals can only hope Smith bounces back like Kitna did.
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"I look at last year as two different seasons," Kitna said. "There was the first half
and I was able to come back the last half. That's where I learned. Quarterbacks have to go through the growing pains and in this day and age there are a lot of times you don't have that opportunity. For me to come back and learn from past mistakes and have a chance to play better at the end of the season, I think my best football is ahead of me."
Last year wasn't his best football, when he couldn't follow a '99 performance in which he took Seattle to the playoffs.
But he indicated a change of scenery would be nice. He made no bones about the fact former Seahawks head coach Dennis Erickson "discovered," him and was his sponsor. Holmgren in 1999.
"I've been on both sides of the fence," Kitna said. "I've been the guy where the head coach, you're his guy. And I've been the guy where you're not necessarily his guy. You get a chance, but that leash is kind of short."
Kitna got ripped this past year for not going down field, but Holmgren was apparently in his ear about not making mistakes. Still, under Bratkowski he had touchdown passes of 59 and 71 yards in 1998. Kitna is clearly comfortable in the offense, which he compared to the Rams and what Norv Turner ran in Dallas and Washington.
But while reuniting with Bratkowski, Kitna was drawn to head coach Dick LeBeau.
"More than anything what I've heard about Coach LeBeau has been the greatest (draw)," Kitna said. "Players really respect him and want to play for him. People I respect, they didn't play for him, they just knew him, spoke highly of him. That's the draw. You want a coach that shoots straight, be honest with you, and he seems to be that kind of guy."
So does Kitna, who was honest with the media when asked what he seeks on the free-agent market.
"My No. 1 priority is I'm a firm believer in Jesus Christ," Kitna said. "My priority is where he wants me to be. Footballwise, I just want to be somewhere where you're wanted."