A year later, Elvis wants in the building

3-2-02, 8:35 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

INDIANAPOLIS _A year after turning down a mega deal from the Bengals, Elvis Grbac's first choice is to sign in Cincinnati in another episode of "As The Quarterback Turns," that could have a quick conclusion with the Cleveland native coming back to Ohio.

Jim Steiner, Grbac's agent, said Saturday night from St. Louis that other teams have expressed interest, but his client's main focus is on the Bengals less than 24 hours after the Ravens cut Grbac because he wouldn't take a pay cut.

Steiner, who dealt with Bengals director of business development Troy Blackburn last year on Grbac and rookie Justin Smith, found himself talking again to Blackburn Saturday afternoon. He said he planned to speak with the club again Saturday night.

A few hours earlier, head coach Steve Spurrier pulled the Redskins out of the Grbac sweepstakes when he said, "We're not looking to spend money on a high-priced veteran because of the salary cap."

Although some perceived Grbac as using the Bengals last year to get more money out of Baltimore, Steiner said Cincinnati's offer of $12 million to sign and $16 million in the first two years was seriously considered. The Ravens offered a split signing bonus of $11 million that would have given him $13 million in the first two years. He ended up earning $5.5 million his one year with the Ravens.

"That was no joke last year," Steiner said. "It was very serious and it was a tough decision not to go to Cincinnati. Elvis was intoxicated by the idea of playing for the Super Bowl champions and that lured him. But the same things are there in Cincinnati. He's four hours from home, the facilities are beautiful, he liked the coaching staff, and we knew the team was going to be better and they were."

If Grbac is running out of options, the Bengals don't have an expansive list of quarterbacks and are mulling switching soon to the pursuit of other positions if they don't get one fairly quickly. Bengals President Mike Brown wouldn't rule out a trade for a quarterback (read New England's Drew Bledsoe), but he said it was an option that would only come later.

"If you get overanxious (in free agency), you pay a price and we don't plan to do that," Brown said. "We'll get someone who doesn't blow up our future.

"There are other hens in the henhouse and we're going to see if we can break in and get one and I think eventually we will," Brown said. "There's a long list of guys who can help us at a half dozen positions."

The latest chapter in the Bengals' quarterback saga unfolded here Saturday at the NFL scouting combine when the Bengals were scuttled in their attempt to sign Trent Dilfer, the top quarterback on the board who fell off when he re-signed in Seattle.

Like the rest of the NFL, the Bengals were taken aback when

Dilfer re-signed with Seattle late Friday on the first day of free agency

Despite several negotiations with the Bengals Friday, Dilfer and agent Michael Sullivan opted for a four-year deal when the Seahawks gave him a $4 million signing bonus and the starting job heading into training camp that Dilfer so much wanted.

The Bengals said the only thing that surprised them about the deal is that they never really got chance to put a final proposal in front of Dilfer. But the talks had apparently broken down earlier because of Cincinnati's insistence to put a market number on Dilfer.

Sullivan said the negotiations with the Bengals cooled as more quarterbacks became available Friday.

"Based upon the numbers that were discussed, it seems to me the number of quarterbacks in the market was more important (to the Bengals) than any single one of them," Sullivan said of his talks with Cincinnati.

Dilfer gets base salaries of $750,000, $750,000, $1.25 million, and $1.25 million in what amounts to a four-year, $8 million deal that can inflate to $18 million. The last three seasons can leap to $3.5 million, $4.5 million and $5.25 million if he has a passing rating of 85 or better and Seattle wins 10 games.

Brown said the Bengals' proposal to Dilfer could be viewed as larger than the four years, $8 million Seattle gave him, but the Seahawks' total package was dwarfed by the $18 million Dilfer could make. He also said Dilfer's request for a guarantee to be named the starter didn't gut the deal, but Brown said it's something he would like to avoid.

"You have to look at what every one is getting paid at the position," said Blackburn, who cited the $ 4 million bonus Miami gave to playoff quarterback Jay Fiedler. "We felt that it was high for the value of the player related to the other players we could get."

A season after going to the Pro Bowl, Grbac slipped to 15 touchdown passes and 18 interceptions last year in Baltimore. But he still had a higher completion percentage than the Bengals' Jon Kitna (56.7 to 53.9), as well as a better passing rating (71 to 61) and a higher average gain, with 6.5 to 5.5 yards.

Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau said Grbac's off season in Baltimore this past year hasn't cooled the Bengals' interest.

"There's no reason to think that a guy who has shown growth, growth, growth and is hitting his peak, is not going to continue to be a good, productive quarterback," LeBeau said.

Brown said he wouldn't have problems signing Grbac after what was perceived as a snub. Before the Bengals upset the Ravens last season with three interceptions of Grbac, Bengals linebacker Takeo Spikes ripped Grbac for choosing Baltimore over Cincinnati because he wanted to play for a winner.

"I don't think it was a snub," Brown said. "He signed with another team. That happens in free agency."

One free-agent quarterback the Bengals aren't pursuing now is former Bills quarterback Rob Johnson. But Chris Chandler appears to be on the list.

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