BY GEOFF HOBSON
With the price escalating for Pro Bowl quarterback Elvis Grbac, the Bengals opted to pull out of the bidding Monday night with the Ravens.
Instead of pursuing a mega contract with Grbac that would have limited them to signing one other free-agent starter, the Bengals have decided to spread out their money and seek three to four new starters. The plan includes one to be a quarterback who could be a starter or backup.
The move is also a show of support for embattled franchise quarterback Akili Smith. With Brad Johnson signing a five-year, $28 million deal in Tampa Bay, the Bengals are focused on signing one of a trio of quarterbacks in Jon Kitna, Gus Frerotte, or Trent Dilfer, who will compete with Smith for the job instead of beating him out with a paycheck.
"We talked about a lot of money with Elvis because we think he's a fine football player," said Troy Blackburn, the Bengals director of business development. "But we felt the best move for the team is getting as many quality players as we can at a variety of positions and at this point a deal with Elvis would preclude that.
"Plus, we think that Akili Smith still has a chance to be a top quarterback and that's a direction we shouldn't close off," Blackburn said.
Blackburn wouldn't talk numbers, but Johnson received $12 million in the first two years from the Bucs. The Ravens reportedly had a $6 million signing bonus on the table for Grbac, but have nearly half the room the Bengals have under the NFL salary cap.
The Bengals will probably have a new quarterback by the end of Tuesday.
Frerotte agent Ralph Cindrich said Monday night he hopes to reach a deal by then, after his client returns from his recruiting trip to Miami.
"The Bengals have been aggressive, but this was a hard day to deal because Gus was with the Dolphins most of the time," Cindrich said. "I've got to sit down with him and see what's on his mind. I know he had a good feel for Cincinnati."
But Kitna is flying into Cincinnati Tuesday with his wife and agent
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Carl Lopez for a reunion with Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski.
Bratkowski was Seattle's offensive coordinator when Kitna came into the league as a free agent out of Central Washington and broke him in as a starter in 1998. Bratkowski was gone the next year in 1999, when Kitna led the Seahawks to their first playoff appearance in 11 seasons.
Also, the Bengals have arranged a conference call Tuesday with Dilfer, Bratkowski and quarterbacks coach Ken Anderson. With Grbac ticketed for Baltimore, Dilfer, the Ravens Super Bowl quarterback is looking for work.
"Trent has some commitments and can't make the trip," said Mike Sullivan, his agent. "But this was done to accommodate the Bengals' timetable. They would like to quickly gauge his interest."
In their bid to spread the wealth, the Bengals continue their parade of free agent visits, highlighted by a recruiting visit Tuesday with former Pro Bowl tackle Leon Searcy.
The Bengals will need an airport shuttle. Joining Kitna and Searcy in town is Vikings defensive tackle Tony Williams. On Wednesday, defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield, the Taylor High School product, makes his homecoming. Ravens center Jeff Mitchell, Jets defensive tackle Jason Ferguson and Titans defensive end Kenny Holmes are also coming in Wednesday and Thursday.
"Leon has played against the Bengals his entire career and is interested," said agent Drew Rosenhaus, who confirmed the visit. "He's had interest from several teams. He's going to Baltimore from there and Cleveland is interested."
Rosenhaus also said the team that cut Searcy to help get out of its salary-cap crunch, Jacksonville, is also looking to-resign him.
The most intriguing thing a Searcy signing would mean for the Bengals is moving Willie Anderson to left tackle to make room for Searcy on the right side.
Searcy, who turns 32 the end of the year, missed virtually all this past season with a torn quad muscle. But when last healthy, he went to the Pro Bowl after the '99 season and went to the playoffs every year of his career but last one with the Steelers and Jaguars.
"From the Willie Anderson contract, he knows it's a team that places a premium on linemen," said Rosenhaus of the $30.5 million deal Anderson signed last year.