Bengals' Kitna now has air of confidence in his game

December 02, 2003|By LAURA VECSEY

WE'RE TAKING a knee, Jon Kitna told Ray Lewis on the final play of the Bengals' win over the Ravens on Oct. 19.

Nice guy, this Jon Kitna, giving Lewis the professional courtesy of a warning.

Likewise, the Ravens linebacker had something to tell the Bengals quarterback. Lewis looked into the Bengals' huddle and said: "Just remember. You guys gotta come to Baltimore." Funny Ray.

"I laughed and said don't ruin my moment of joy. I don't want to think about going to Baltimore now," Kitna recalled yesterday, the morning after Kitna slung a touchdown pass with 13 seconds remaining to beat the Steelers, 24-20, and set up Sunday's mother-of-all AFC North showdowns at M&T Bank Stadium.

Now Kitna is this week's toast of the NFL. A chunk of credit must go to Cincinnati's first-year coach, Marvin Lewis, who has made an official mockery of every NFL franchise that did not hire him, but Kitna must be applauded, too.

In fact, ESPN broadcasters Sunday night were extolling Kitna's virtuous stats (19 touchdown passes to four interceptions over the past nine games) by suggesting Kitna is somewhere between the Pro Bowl and Canton.

On the phone yesterday after getting his kids off to school, Kitna laughed.

"My wife and I wanted one year in the NFL [for enough money to buy a modest house]. Now we're in Year 8," he said.

In a league where disposable quarterbacks ride carousels and general managers look to free agency to catch Super Bowl lightning in a bottle, Kitna and a lot of the Bengals' offense has been together three years. It's clicking so much, Corey Dillon isn't even complaining, not after Kitna was chosen to start this season over Cincinnati's heralded No. 1 draft pick, quarterback Carson Palmer, whose team Kitna is running until the kid is ready.

But not yet. Not now. Now Kitna knows what Ray Lewis was talking about six weeks ago. It's time for the Bengals to think about coming to Baltimore to play the Ravens - a pumpkin of a game that has morphed into one of the NFL's chariots. Two hot teams with 7-5 records, riding win streaks, peaking. It's a big game - and it involves the Bengals.

Who would have dreamed it? Well, maybe that dream would come from Kitna, out of that famous football factory, Central Washington.

Oh, right. That's not a football factory. That's just a small school two hours east over the mountains from Seattle, a campus where former Seahawks coach Dennis Erickson went to watch his nephew play. But there was Kitna, not good enough to earn a scholarship at Pac-10 powerhouses like Washington or Washington State, yet slinging the ball and running an offense with enough character and arm strength to warrant pleasant surprise. Erickson decided Kitna - whose post-college aspirations centered on teaching high school math - had the stuff to win in the NFL.

But then Erickson got fired and new Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren would decide - as all great gurus must decide - that Erickson's novelty quarterback was not going to be his. So Holmgren gave up on Kitna, allowing Kitna to sign in Cincinnati.

Not exactly a football destination where confidence and ego are easily restored - until now.

Kitna calls the Bengals a changed organization, thanks to Marvin Lewis. He got rid of guys who weren't about winning. He got the organization to invest $500,000 for new equipment in the weight room. Training meals were upgraded. So were hotel accommodations. The Bengals for the first time stay in a team hotel Saturday nights before home games.

"It's unbelievable the changes," said Kitna, who laughs and calls the Bengals "cockroaches." He calls himself the chief cockroach "because I'm one of those guys where people get you one foot out the door but God continues to bring me back in." He gets a kick out of being that undrafted quarterback out of Central Washington.

"I laugh a lot, not like I've got anything to prove," Kitna said. "I laugh at God because he has a sense of humor. He chooses the foolish thing to shame the wise. He chooses the weak thing to shame the strong. I am those things, because like John Clayton [of ESPN] said, I have about a 5 percent chance of making it and here I am, in Year 8."

If the Ravens have something besides former defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis to worry about this Sunday, it's Kitna. For that, the Ravens can thank a book Kitna read earlier this season, when the Bengals were 0-3 heading into Cleveland.

The book? Wild At Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man's Soul. Kitna said the book sparked an epiphany, one that has since allowed Kitna to play with "reckless abandon."

After the stirring road win Sunday against the Steelers, Kitna said the things quarterbacks start to say when the game finally comes to them. He can see the whole field more clearly than ever. The action has slowed down. He is no longer afraid to fail, an affliction that started after Holmgren cast him off and Kitna, with all the fumbles and interceptions, got tagged "loser."

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