BY GEOFF HOBSON
PHILADELPHIA _ The Bengals made sure their best free-agent signing ever won't become a free agent.
Defensive tackle Oliver Gibson, whose original three-year contract was up after next season, has signed a four-year extension keeping him in the middle of the defense into the middle of the decade.
Gibson wasn't happy with Sunday's 16-7 loss here to the Eagles. But the man who loves to play for Dick LeBeau was pleased with the future.
"I'm more than happy," Gibson said. "Try ecstatic."
Gibson, 28, the only defensive lineman to start every game this season, shared the team sack lead with outside linebacker Steve Foley and strong safety Cory Hall with four.
"We think he's one of the best interior linemen in the conference and we've paid him as such," said Bengals executive vice president Katie Blackburn, who wouldn't divulge numbers.
"We want to reward players who produce and Oliver has been very solid and very productive for us and he fits us well."
Gibson came to the Bengals before the 1999 season from Pittsburgh when he signed a three-year, $3.6 million package. As the Steelers defensive coordinator, LeBeau took Gibson in the fourth round out of Notre Dame in the 1995 NFL Draft and then pursued him in free agency when he was the Bengals defensive coordinator.
After never starting in 60 games at Pittsburgh, Gibson has started all of his 32 games in Cincinnati. This season he leads the line in the coaches' stats with 48 tackles after finishing second last year with 41.
Since the Bengals reached the deal with Gibson before the end of the season, they were able make some of the money count under the 2000 salary cap.
According to various sources, the Bengals have less room under the cap than three playoff teams and are 12th in the league with an average salary of $1.15 million.
COREY LOBBY: What would a post-game Bengals locker room be without player urging the Bengals to re-sign Bengals Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon?
"It will set us back years," said linebacker Takeo Spikes when asked if they don't.
"We could be like Philadelphia," Spikes said, when asked what it would mean if they do.
The Bengals plan on signing Dillon, even if they have to match another team's offer. The problem there is if Dillon goes on the market March 2, the Bengals may not be able to sign any free agents in anticipation of what they may have to give to match Dillon.
For instance, would a team try to blunt the Bengals' bid to match with a huge first year in the salary cap? Or would they try to spread a massive signing bonus out into the future? The Bengals would have to remain flexible.
Which is why they made a strong offer to Dillon before the end of the season in a bid to sign him so they can plan. There's still hope for a Dillon deal before March 2. David Levine, one of Dillon's agents, is the guy who did Gibson's deal.
With Dillon's 39 yards on 16 carries Sunday, the Bengal season records are now 1,435 yards on 315 carries. Dillon had his ups and downs against the league's top defenses.
His worst games this season came against Baltimore's top-ranked defense (32 yards in two games), Pittsburgh's No. 10 defense (35 yards), Philadelphia's No. 11 defense (39 yards), and Tennessee's No. 2 defense (42 yards). His 41 yards against the 26th-ranked Browns in the opener is puzzling because he ripped them for 137 yards six weeks later.
And he did dent No. 7 Miami for 110 yards, Pittsburgh for 128, Tennessee for 95 and shredded Denver for an NFL-record 278 yards when the Broncos were second against the rush on Oct. 22. They are now 10th, which is pretty good after that big number Dillon hung on them.
4-12 FALLOUT: ** With their second straight 4-12 finish, the Bengals host Chicago, New England and Tampa Bay next season and travel to Detroit, San Diego and the Jets. They also pick fourth in the draft for the second straight year.
By the way, last year's fourth pick, receiver Peter Warrick, had three catches for 38 yards Sunday that included a spectacular leaping 17-yard touchdown executed with one hand and the defender draped on him.
That gives him 51 catches and seven touchdowns (four receiving, two rushing, one punt return), tying him for the team lead with Dillon. His 592 receiving yards are 209 shy of his incentive that would have netted him $1 million over the next year.
POPE RECORDS RECORD: ** Daniel Pope broke the record no one wants. He punted five times Sunday, giving him 94 for the season and breaking Pat McInally's record of 91 in 1978.
Pope, a second-year man, had a solid year and shored up a spot that caused the Bengals mega problems last year. He came into the game with a 40.3 average and got off a 37.4 average that included one inside the 20 and one touchback.
But he wasn't happy with his most important kick of the day, an on-side try after the Bengals cut the Eagles lead to 13-7 with 3:12 left in the game.
Pope punched the ball a couple yards shy of the necessary 10 yards needed to be able to recover the ball.
"I didn't give us a chance," Pope said. "I just didn't hit it hard enough."
Not a great day for the kickers. Neil Rackers finished his rookie season 12-for-21on field goals when he banged a 31-yard field goal try off the left upright. That was after LeBeau passed up a 49-yard field goal on the first series of the second quarter in a game the Bengals trailed, 10-0. Rackers was aiming for the upright because of a wind that ended up playing tricks.
Rackers had only one solution on how to make next year better: "Get stronger and keep kicking."
INJURY UPDATE: RT Willie Anderson had to leave the game in the second quarter with a thigh bruise. . . DT John Copeland started, but couldn't finish the game with the calf he strained last week. . .MLB Armegis Spearman had to leave his terrific game in the second half after 10 tackles and a sack. He had turf toe and negative X-Rays on a sore wrist. With MLBs Brian Simmons and Adrian Ross already out, and Spearman's backup, Billy Granville leaving the game with a sprained knee, OLB Canute Curtis had to move to the middle.
The Bengals fear Granville may have torn ligaments.