To QB or not to QB?

11-13-02, 8:05 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

All this talk about possibly changing quarterbacks again has pockets of the Bengals' locker room up in arms. Chad Johnson, who has blossomed into the club's go-to-receiver during Jon Kitna's five games as the starting quarterback, is urging to stick with the current cast.

Including the head coach.

"If we want to go where everybody else is talking," Johnson said Wednesday, "we've got to have somebody at the helm and know what's going on.

"If it's going to happen, it's going to be sticking with what we've got," Johnson said. "There's nothing wrong with our offense. There's nothing wrong with our coaches. All this about (Dick) LeBeau getting fired. All these copouts? No. Forget what the people on the outside think. Forget all that. Stick with what we've got. It's going to work."

Kitna doesn't think he should have to hear the questions swirling about his status. Traditionally, Bengals President Mike Brown likes to play for the future when there is nothing left on the line, and he isn't saying anything definitively about the quarterback job and if someone might get a look for '03 in '02.

And that has Kitna irked.

"I should be the quarterback. The guys in this locker room respect and trust me," Kitna said. "(But) it doesn't matter what I do. And they wonder why they lose around here every year? It's because we start over every year. One of these years you might catch lightening in a bottle, but you never get anything consistent."

Akili Smith, the man who would be the man if Kitna isn't, also isn't happy about the prospect of getting the call if he's not get any snaps in practice as the No. 3 quarterback. He wonders why he hasn't been No. 2 before now.

"The coaches make that decision and they do it based on who they think merits it," Brown said.

Brown has high praise for Kitna's latest stretch, but he also says he's not happy with anything at 1-8 and won't

say what the club has planned for the future at the position.

"These promising things have

happened with Jon in there," Brown said. "I would like to think if we continue in this way, maybe we can improve where we are now and win some games. The issue as to how we are going to go the rest of the season will be decided as we go along."

The Bengals have been pleased with Kitna's 71.6 completion percentage and a passer rating of 86.7 in his five starts, the highest in years at the position. But his 10 interceptions that are part of a NFL-leading 16 give them pause about handing him the keys. Plus, the club is 1-4 in those starts.

"Quarterbacks throw interceptions," Johnson said. "You've got other people on the other side of the ball paid millions to stop what we're doing. It's going to happen."

Johnson is hearing that the Bengals could take Marshall quarterback Byron Leftwich with their first draft pick and that has him perplexed because Kitna has energized the passing game.

"He knows the offense the best. He knows the receivers the best. That's what you need. Bring in a new guy, bring in, who, Leftwich?" Johnson asked. "Yeah , he's good, but what's that do? Go back to square one. He has to learn the offense, he's got to learn on us. How long is that going to take? A long time? Could be the whole year?"

Kitna has said he doesn't expect to finish the season as the starter if the team continues to lose and he knows the media is looking at his contract.

If he plays 80 percent of this season's snaps, it means $1 million in 2003. If the Bengals stay on the field at the current pace and Kitna takes all the snaps, it computes to about 81 percent.

Last year, Kitna was one of three players who hit incentives in the last month of the season, and rookie left tackle Levi Jones is looking at a seven-figure incentive this season.

At the very least, at his weekly news conference Wednesday, Kitna made it clear he knows the Bengals like to start looking to next year.

"That seems to be the nature of the business and the nature of how things go around here. When we get out of the playoff picture, they tend to start looking down other avenues," Kitna said. "You guys know my beliefs and my faith, and as long as God wants me to be in there playing quarterback, I'm going to be in there. That is ultimately what it comes down to. That seems to be the trend here though based on the past."

Kitna continues to be mystified about his role and how he lost the job to Gus Frerotte in training camp.

"They told me in training camp they wanted my completion percentage up around 70," said Kitna, who completed just 53.9 percent last year. "I go out in the first two (preseason) games, complete 70 percent, and it doesn't matter."

One thing is certain. Less than a year after they wanted to maul each other on the sidelines in Baltimore, Kitna and Johnson are running each other's fan clubs.

Since Kitna became the starter, Johnson has caught at least six balls or scored a touchdown in each of the past five games to become the Bengals' leader with 34 catches and 458 yards.

In last Sunday's 38-27 loss in Baltimore, Johnson had a career-high seven catches for 110 yards for his first 100-yard game ever and the team's first of the season.

"He's been awesome. He's not waited for me," Kitna said. "There have been times where I have been lazy and not wanted to stay after practice, and he forces me to stay after practice. He started the habit where both of us come in early on game day, before anyone else is out on the field. We run routes and throw balls at 9:30-10 in the morning. I'm happy for Chad. He's got that special kind of talent that not everybody can possess. The only thing he had to figure out was how to work during the week so that is talent is evident on Sundays, and he's done a wonderful job. He's growing a lot and I think he'll continue to grow."

Johnson is talking about his goal of being a dominant player.

"I want to be like Terrell Owens, Marvin Harrison, the kind of guy you can count on no matter what," Johnson said. "But I don't want to be called a 'go-to-guy.' I don't like that word."

Johnson said he went to some of his coaches wanting to know not only how to take his game to the next level, but also how to help the team get over the hump.

"I want to win," Johnson said. "The only way for it to happen is we have to keep all of us together."

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