278 questions (at least)

There are more possibilities than yards Corey Dillon gained back on Oct. 22 against Denver.

That was the day he hit 278 and the lottery in becoming a mega-million NFL running back. Not to mention the best single-game rusher in the history of the pros.

What are the Bengals going to do with Dillon?

Is Dillon coming back to the Bengals?

Do the Cleveland Browns want Dillon?

How much will the Browns give Dillon?

The newspapers keep saying Dillon to Cleveland, but why are Browns' insiders telling people Dillon is off the table and a cheaper running back (Charlie Garner?) is on?

Dillon? Dillon? Dillon? . . .

If you know the answer to any of these, then you should seriously consider splitting the atom in your off hours and then go on vacation to broker world peace.

Who knows?

All we know is the Bengals have said they will match virtually any offer on their free-agent Pro Bowl running back.

Of course, that's always easier said than done. Especially when one of Dillon's people is Leigh Steinberg, the NFL SuperAgent whose negotiations with the Bengals have been some of the more notorious in the history of pro sports.

Not to mention that Steinberg's relationship with Carmen Policy is well documented from the Steve Young days. And Policy happens to run a Cleveland Browns team that has coveted Dillon while he has run over it in three of the past four games.

Not to mention Dillon wants to play for a winner. He has watched Carl Pickens go to Tennessee, Jeff Blake go to New Orleans, Sam Shade go to Washington, and he dreams of the playoffs.

But both sides have said they will try to put something together before free agency starts March 2. Steinberg has also done quick, tidy deals with Cincinnati (Dan Wilkinson, Neil O'Donnell), and to Dillon's credit he has never ruled out the Bengals while noting their off-season changes.

All we know for sure is the Bengals made one of their most serious runs ever when they tried to sign Dillon at the end of the season and he stuck to his guns about going on the market.

Even Cleveland officials were publicly impressed with the numbers thrown around in the Bengals' talks with Dillon.

But the questions buzz around the March 2 deadline.

What number will make the Bengals blink?

What contract structure will make them pause?

What if a team gives Dillon the ability to opt out of the contract after the '01 season? After giving him a double-digit signing bonus?

It's tough to see the Bengals matching any contract running counter to their philosophy of not shoving big dollars into future years for a player who might not even be around.

Of course, it's also tough imagining another team doing the same thing. Giving a one-year option to a running back. A running back who has gone to great lengths to be a free agent.

Get the idea? The Dillon Question is more like a riddle. The scenarios crisscross like a subway network.

Does the name Marvin Demoff ring a bell?

It should. He is Dillon's first agent, a formidable and respected force who is probably the major reason the Bengals don't have the franchise tag to use on Dillon this year.

Since teams have to give up two first-round draft picks to sign a franchise free agent, the tag virtually makes the franchise player untouchable. And since there is no compensation

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in signing a transition free agent, it puts the player on the market.

It will be recalled that after signing Pickens, the Bengals lost their franchise tag in the NFL Players Association's grievance against four teams following the 1999 season: Cincinnati, Arizona, Green Bay and San Francisco.

The NFLPA argued those teams misused the franchise tag by reaching side deals with their franchise players. The union argued the teams agreed to a long-term deal, but then signed a one-year contract so the club could keep the franchise tag for next year instead of giving it up for the duration of the long-term contract.

The NFLPA lost the case with Arizona, but last summer tussled with the other three clubs.

The NFLPA, the cynics would say, could see Demoff, one of the NFL's most influential agents, had a Pro Bowl client in Dillon coming up as an unrestricted free agent after the '00 season.

Cynics would suggest the NFLPA let the Packers and 49ers have their franchise tag for '01 because their unrestricted crop of free agents included the likes of Brentson Buckner, Anthony Pleasant, and Danny Wuerffel. Dillon and Demoff were big enough that the union gave in on Green Bay and San Francisco, the cynics say, but not Cincinnati.

The NFLPA argues no. The union says the Bengals made a side deal with Pickens. But the Bengals insist they were still hashing out specifics of a long-term deal when Pickens signed the one-year offer and that the club did the same thing the Packers and Niners did.

It's not easy, is it?

So the hot rumor for months has been Dillon is Cleveland's top off-season priority.

But is he? Now that he has fired Demoff and the Browns' new head coach is Butch Davis, a Demoff client?

And just how creative is Policy going to get? Policy, the NFL's cap guru, is fresh off getting rung up by NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue for cap violations in San Francisco. He's probably not the most likely guy to be churning out any of those creative, unmatchable contract clauses.

Then again, maybe Policy believes after five wins in the Browns' first two seasons and a new coach in tow, signing Dillon energizes his franchise and weakens a division foe.

There is no question Dillon is a tough, talented guy who will punish people all day in a punishing sport. Put Dillon back there with quarterback Tim Couch and wide receivers David Terrell and Kevin Johnson, and where is the Browns' offense suddenly?

At the very least, a Dillon bid could foul up the salary cap of Cleveland's Ohio rival.

Welcome to Free Agency, 2001, where the premium, at the moment, is finding some answers.

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