Never appreciated here, Kitna on fire for 2-0 Bengals

  • Larry Henry / Sports Columnist
  • Tuesday, September 25, 2001 9:00pm
  • Sports

Maybe someday his coach will applaud his performance with superlatives.

Maybe someday he’ll say “Jon Kitna played outstandingly today.”

Maybe someday, but not yet.

Kitna got his usual evaluation on Sunday.

“He played well today,” said Cincinnati Bengals coach Dick LeBeau.

Maybe that’s all you deserve when you complete 19 of 30 passes for 154 yards and one touchdown.

To the best of my memory, the highest praise Kitna ever got when he played for Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren was “he did fine.” Or “he was OK.” Or “he played well.”

Again, maybe that’s all he merited.

But just once, wouldn’t you like to hear the old coach get a little carried away and exclaim, “he gave a boffo performance?”


Jon Kitna is apparently, for now at least, an average quarterback who elicits average praise.

What the Bengals have done with him as their starting quarterback is way above average.

The team with the worst record in the NFL during the past 10 years, the Bengals, are off to a 2-0 start.

Last Sunday, they did the extraordinary. They beat the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens, 21-10.

That just isn’t supposed to happen.

It happened – with Jon Kitna at quarterback.

The same Jon Kitna about whom one national magazine, in its preseason edition, wrote, “When Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren picked Matt Hasselbeck, Brock Huard and Trent Dilfer over Kitna this offseason, he knew what he was doing.”

That’s the same Trent Dilfer Seattle fans were chanting to replace Hasselbeck last Sunday when the Seahawks got trounced 27-3 by the Philadelphia Eagles.

In that same magazine article, one NFL scout offered this: “As usual, the Bengals spent a lot of money in free agency on players way past their prime. … Well, I’m not sure Kitna ever had a prime.”

Maybe not.

But maybe, just maybe, he’s beginning to come into his prime.

It might be that all Kitna needed was a change of scenery. You never got the sense that Holmgren ever had that much confidence in him. Kitna must have sensed that, too. That no matter what he did, it was never going to be quite good enough to suit the coach.

Yet, Kitna holds no hard feelings toward his old mentor. If anything, he’s grateful for what he learned from him.

“I definitely believe I would not be as mature as I am had I not gone through the last two years (with Holmgren),” he said Tuesday from his home. “I’ve become more persevering. I have more character. I’ve grown as a man.”

To be truthful, Kitna wasn’t all that good last year. He threw more interceptions (19) than he did touchdowns (18). And he was the 23rd-rated quarterback in the NFL.

“When you throw interceptions, that’ll produce a breach in the trust between the coach and the player,” he conceded. “Along with that, it was a no-win situation. It had gotten to the point where … I just felt it was time to move on. I didn’t want to move out of state but now I see that it’s allowed us to grow closer as a family.”

In wins over New England and Baltimore this season, Kitna has passed for 358 yards and two touchdowns, but more importantly he has yet to throw an interception.

“The thing is, I just don’t feel like I’ve got to go out and do something dynamic,” he said. “If I go out and take the things the defense gives me, I’ll be fine.”

What had to make Sunday’s win over the Ravens even sweeter was that he beat the quarterback the Bengals wanted most in the offseason, Elvis Grbac, who had three interceptions and a fumble.

“I’m glad we got the quarterback we got,” LeBeau said afterward. “We don’t have Elvis, but we do have Jon.”

The Bengals wanted Grbac because Akili Smith wasn’t the answer to their quarterbacking ills, and when Grbac turned them down, they signed Kitna, sent packing by the Seahawks. Kitna beat out Smith and veteran Scott Mitchell for the starting job. Right now, you could find Seahawk fans questioning Holmgren’s ability as a talent evaluator. After all, he also gave up on Ahman Green, and all Green did last year was rush for 1,175 yards and catch 73 passes for Green Bay.

In Kitna’s case, the jury is still out. There are 14 games to go, beginning with a showdown against the Chargers in San Diego this Sunday. Those are the unbeaten Chargers (2-0), who won only once last year. So one of these downtroddens is going to emerge with a 3-0 record. Will miracles never cease?

This is just what Kitna needed. To come in and win the job is one thing. But to keep it, he needed for something good to happen. He needed to win on the field. And to do it with Cincinnati … well, that’s remarkable.

“I think he’s growing into the job more,” said Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski. “Ever since he was named the starter, he kind of took it as ‘Now it’s my team.’ He’s taken that leadership role.”

There was never anything wrong with Kitna as a leader. He’s a fiery guy. And he showed his feisty side in Sunday’s game with some trash talking of his own. Players respect a quarterback who gives it right back to the opposition.

They also like a leader who doesn’t get down when things go badly. “The one quality that I always thought Jon had was he would not get shook,” said Bratkowski, who served in the same capacity for the Seahawks when Kitna joined the team as a free agent. “Some terrible things could happen but he would keep his poise. (Bengals) players have seen that in him and they rally around him.”

The presence of Bratkowski, new to the Bengals, has helped Kitna. Players develop comfort levels with certain coaches they’ve worked with. They know their styles. They know how they operate. They know their personalities.

Kitna can also take comfort in knowing the offense isn’t completely dependent on his right arm. He’s got one of the best running backs in the NFL to hand off to in Corey Dillon, the ex-University of Washington star.

Mostly, though, Kitna can take comfort in himself. The guy’s a battler. He’s overcome personal problems. He came out of little Central Washington University to play in the NFL. Not only has he played, but he’s had some success. He’s 19-15 as a starter.

Now he’s done what some thought impossible: He has the Bengals in first place in the AFC Central.

Oh, besides those two scoring passes he’s thrown, he’s also run for a touchdown.

That’s one more TD than his old team has in two games.

“I don’t want them to do bad,” he said. “I pray for coach Holmgren and his players every night.”

That’s good, Jon. Because they’re going to need it.

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