12-24-02, 5:10 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
A Christmas Eve tale of two quarterbacks:
Drew Bledsoe, the 4,000-yard passing artist whose agents told the Bengals he didn't want to be traded to Cincinnati, pretty much said as much Tuesday in his characteristic polite manner.
"It's not like I was a free agent. I didn't have any say in where I was going because I was traded," said Bledsoe during Tuesday's weekly conference call from Buffalo with the Cincinnati media. "I didn't have any control over the whole situation and I'll just say I'm happy that I ended up where I am."
And then there is Jon Kitna, the man who does play quarterback for the Bengals and who does want to be here and told Bengals President Mike Brown so when he spoke to the boss last week.
Kitna admits he feels bitterness about losing his job in training camp, but he feels good enough about himself and this team that he would sign an extension if it ever worked out. And he knows no matter what an undrafted NAIA quarterback does, he'll never be thought of in terms of a No. 1 pick like, say, Drew Bledsoe.
(If you want to have fun with numbers, take out Kitna's stats in his 11 starts for a 16-game season and you get 4,074 yards on 23 touchdowns and 19 interceptions. Bledsoe heads into Sunday's finale with 4,128 yards on 23 touchdowns and 15 interceptions.)
"I told (Brown) I couldn't understand why they went after guys that turned them down or didn't want to be here," Kitna said in reference to Elvis Grbac and friends. "I told him I want to help turn it around. I want to be a piece to the problem."
On Tuesday, Bledsoe extolled the formidable virtues of president Tom Donahoe's organization in Buffalo. On Tuesday, Kitna said he has spoken twice to Brown in the last month about the quarterback's comments directed at the top of the Bengals' organization.
On Thanksgiving, Kitna said he apologized to Brown concerning remarks he made "about the quarterback situation," and last week he talked to Brown, "about what my whole purpose was in what I said after
the game last week."
Kitna had heard the brass was upset about his "attitude-starts-at-the-top," line after the 29-15 loss to Jacksonville Dec. 15.
"I still stand by what I said," Kitna said. "If there's going to be an attitude change, they have to change it from up top. They're the ones that are going to be able to change it. That's where it comes from. I think they took it wrong, from what I gather."
On Tuesday, Bledsoe said he is confident the Bills' franchise can compete for the next five to seven years and it is "outstanding from top to bottom." On Tuesday, Kitna said he feels the Bengals can win next season, "if we can just add a piece here and there, shake some things up a little bit to get guys' attention and and get the focus on winning and doing whatever is necessary. That's something I want to talk to him about, too."
It's an important topic because given the tattered image of the franchise, this class of free agents figures to pull a Bledsoe. It's going to be tough to sell when a core player like right tackle Willie Anderson is heading into the offseason shell-shocked.
"He got to a point where he had seen so much losing, his vision was clouded," said Anderson of former teammate Tony McGee. "That's the point where I'm getting to now. I can't see the rainbow any more . You play hard, do your thing, but I'm at the point I can't see any more. . .I'll try to get (refreshed in the offseason). . .but I know I can't go through it another year. "
Kitna admits it's going to be hard to lure the right kind of people, which is why he is advocating re-signing their own, like inside linebacker Takeo Spikes, fullbacks Lorenzo Neal and Nicolas Luchey, and center Rich Braham.
"You have to build from within," Kitna said. "If you go out and get free agents, you'd really have to question their motive for coming here. It isn't the most glamorous situation when you look at it. Does he just want the money? Then how much does he really want to be here? I think we have a lot of positive things going on offense and our defense is just one year removed from being No. 9. The big thing is attitude."
Kitna says to look at the people already here. Anderson did when he was asked about the what-if thoughts on Bledsoe.
"When Jon Kitna got in the game, we played well enough as an offense to win," Anderson said. "Kitna doesn't play defense, he doesn't play offensive line. He's a quarterback and he did what a quarterback has to do to help this team win. Just wish he was in there earlier. But the decision was made."
And even though Kitna tried to be a good backup and tried to help the team, he admits the decision made him bitter: "Not an individual bitterness, but a team bitterness that we didn't get the chance to build on last year."
No one is saying he's Bledsoe, and not Kitna, but he's also looking at the numbers.
"The perception is always going to be there no mater what. He was the No. 1 pick in the draft, he went to Super Bowls and Pro Bowls," Kitna said. "Once people form an opinion in this league, it's very hard to change that opinion.
"I'll put my intellect and my knowledge of the game against anybody in this league at quarterback," Kitna said. "I wouldn't have a problem matching my knowledge of the defense with anybody in this league. OK, my arm isn't that strong. I'm sick of hearing that. It's plenty strong."
On Tuesday, Bledsoe spoke brightly of the next five to seven years. On Tuesday, Kitna said he never felt better. He's 30 (like Bledsoe). He's never broken a bone, never had surgery, feels like he can play a long time, the offense has so much potential, and "It'd be nice to maybe get something done and just say, 'This is what we're going to do, and go that way.' We'll see."