What If passes through mind

11-4-02, 4:40 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

HOUSTON _ The greatest guarantee in pro football history came from Joe Willie Namath before he quarterbacked the Jets to victory in Super Bowl III over the heavily-favored Colts.

Asked if he felt like "Joe Willie LeBeau," after his guarantee of sorts panned out Sunday here in his team's 38-3 victory, Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau shook his head.

"No," he said, " but I wouldn't mind having Joe Willie."

On Sunday, he came pretty close. In his fourth start of the season, quarterback Jon Kitna had the greatest stat day of his career, falling about 11 points shy of perfection with a 146.8 passer rating that included his first four-touchdown pass game and his best single game completion percentage on 22 of 27 for 263 yards. He hasn't thrown an interception in the last two games, when he has thrown six touchdown passes, and has led the Bengals to their two biggest scoring days of the season.

"I don't see how you could play any better than Jon did," said Bengals President Mike Brown. "If he plays like this the rest of the way, we're going to have a good accounting for ourselves."

But instead of giddy relief in the locker room after their first win of the season, there was almost a somber "What if?" mood after Kitna commandeered them to more than 380 total yards for the third time since LeBeau gave him the job he had last year before losing it in this past training camp.

"I think about it every day," said right tackle Willie Anderson about the decision not to go with Kitna from the start of minicamp. "You've got to ask the question after the way he finished last season."

With Gus Frerotte starting the first three games and Akili Smith starting the fourth, the Bengals averaged 230 total yards, 147 passing and 5.8 points per game. In the four games Kitna has started, they have racked up 363 total yards, 221 through the air and 23 points.

"Jon Kitna being settled in as the quarterback," said Anderson as the reason for the offensive improvement.

"First couple of games he played, I told him, 'These are your pre-season games.' Now he's in a groove. The offensive line made a commitment to pick up our play. Last week against Tennessee and in this game here we came out dominating the run and the receivers are wide open because everybody expects Corey (Dillon). If you can get Corey four, five yards a pop, the linebackers and safeties start moving up and now (you can throw)."

On Sunday, LeBeau continued to take blame for his quarterback call. Kitna refused to dwell on the might have beens ("If you think about the past, you go crazy. You knew my feelings all along"), but he did say, "Who ever it is, let him be the guy. I think you're seeing the fruits of that."

Kitna, who lobbied to keep his job all last season for continuity sake, lost his spot despite throwing for 751 yards in the last two games of last season. But he says the last two games are the best of his career. He told his parents that last week's 17-for-23 effort for two touchdowns and 193 yards against the Titans was the best game he had played at any level, including high school.

"Because I didn't have any mental errors," Kitna said. "That's what you want as a quarterback. To put your team in position to win."

Kitna re-evaluated his game after the disastrous Oct. 13 outing against the Steelers in which the Bengals moved the ball well in the first half, but his two poor decisions led to interceptions that allowed a 3-0 Steelers' lead to become 17-0.

With one touchdown and seven interceptions heading into last week's game, Kitna made up his mind to take care of the ball and take fewer chances so he could keep the game close. It has helped that the offensive line has played its two best games of the season, allowing no sacks and running back Corey Dillon at least 4.2 yards per carry.

"Our media gets caught up in yards per attempt," Kitna patiently told the Houston media. "They think you have to throw it 50 yards down field to increase that. You don't have to do that. You just need to get a high percentage and guys make the plays after the catch."

Kitna said he won't know if Sunday is the best game of his career until watching the tape. What he'll see is offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski mixing his formations to keep the Texans' highly exotic defensive scheme as unbalanced as possible.

The Texans may have had just two wins coming into the game, but their defense was ranked 10th overall and eighth against the pass with a solid pass rush that had accounted for 20 sacks.

But passing this week out of a three-receiver set as opposed to running out of it like they did last week, the Bengals stayed out of third-and-long situations against Dom Capers' zone blitzes. They converted 60 percent of their third downs because they only had 10 chances and because seven of them were less than eight yards to go.

"What it was about is that we were able to throw the ball and then they couldn't stop the run," said fullback Lorenzo Neal, a key figure in the three-receiver sets Sunday. "To be diversified like that is how you win games. When you can throw the ball, how do they defend Corey?"

When Kitna sees the film, he'll see how the run fake led to wide receiver Michael Westbrook's two touchdown catches. The first one came when it looked like Kitna had floated a possible interception over the middle, but Westbrook simply took the ball away from middle linebacker Jamie Sharper for a 26-yard catch and a 17-3 lead.

"We called that play specifically after seeing what they do in the red zone hoping they gave us the coverage they gave us," Kitna said. "They said he would be down on the linebacker. The linebacker played it pretty well, but he was too high and Westbrook was able to come back underneath him."

So Kitna did what he has done for the last two weeks. He put it where it could be caught. Nothing more, nothing less. In games he has thrown more touchdowns than interceptions, the Bengals are now 5-1. After a stretch of 14 straight games with at least one interception, he has now thrown 54 straight passes without an interception.

It also helps his rookie tight end is coming along. In the last two games, Matt Schobel has caught five balls for 53 yards. On Sunday, with Bratkowski lining him up in unconventional spots for a lead tight end, two of Schobel's four catches came underneath coverages to convert third downs. The first one, on the game's first drive for a field goal, Schobel came out of the backfield for a 12-yard gain.

"Kitna's a smart quarterback," Neal said. "He's not John Elway. But he's not going to kill you. He knows the game plan, he studies the game, and he's demanding on the receivers. I like him."

When was the last time the Bengals had two receivers with more than 10 yards per catch in a game? On Sunday, they had six, ranging from Westbrook's 19 on two catches to wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh's 10 on three.

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