Bengals cope with Neal loss

3-1-03, 2:45 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Pro Bowl fullback Lorenzo Neal took just 15 hours to nail down that magic $1 million signing bonus on the first day of free agency Friday, and it wasn't from the team that sent him to Hawaii.

Neal, generally regarded as the league's best blocking fullback, surprised veteran league observers by the size of the deal for a 32-year-old complementary player that is believed to be for three years at $4.5 million. The Bengals apparently weren't going to dole out that much money to an older player who plays less than 40 percent of the snaps when the season is going right.

But the contract validated Neal's desire not to settle for less than a $1 million per year average from the Bengals during last season's short-lived extension negotiations.

Neal wouldn't confirm numbers, but indicated the bonus is in the seven-figure range, and indicated the Bengals offered about a quarter of that. He even outcashed the more ballyhooed Rob Konrad after Konrad took only a $600,000 bonus in a four-year, $4 million deal Friday to stay in Miami.

It was pretty clear Neal was looking elsewhere once brief negotiations ended earlier this week. Neal was on a plane to San Diego Friday morning and that was that.

"You can't always gamble. (The Bengals) gambled and lost," said Neal after Friday's press conference in San Diego. "The fact it happened right away for that price shows I'm the best and I'm grateful to (head coach) Marty Schottenheimer and the Spanos family."

Some key offensive players found themselves starting 2003 the way they ended 2002. With a loss. This one cost them one of their more highly-regarded veterans who was an influential locker-room figure. Running back Corey Dillon, who followed Neal for back-to-back 1,300-yard seasons, expressed disappointment.

"I'm disappointed. Very disappointed," Dillon said. "You mean, we couldn't give him what they gave him? I don't understand it. Not at all. It's disappointing."

Right tackle Willie Anderson used almost the same words.

"Wow. It's hard. That's a big disappointment," Anderson said. "We'll probably be able to replace his talent. You can always replace talent over the years. But will we get a guy with his professionalism? Will we get a guy who goes all out every play? I took a lot of inspiration from him last year. He was one of the things that kept me going."

The Bengals' other experienced fullback, Nicolas Luchey, is also a free agent, and they would like him back because of his versatility. He's not the lead blocker that Neal is, but he's a better receiver and runner and can play move tight end. The Bengals are talking to him, but his agent said Friday he also has two visits lined up for unnamed teams.

Head coach Marvin Lewis indicated the Bengals weren't going to match the Chargers' numbers.

"I'm glad for Lorenzo. That's a good deal for him," Lewis said.

"Marvin left me a nice message and said he wanted to keep me. It is what it is there," Neal said. "I'm going to miss a lot of those guys there. Corey, Willie, Takeo (Spikes). I think they're going to be OK there with Marvin.

"Maybe this means Nick gets his chance to shine," Neal said. "They're going to be all right. It's not the end of the world for them."

Neal didn't take any shots at Cincinnati when the San Diego media gave him a chance when they asked if he was relieved to be gone.

"I'm not going to lie and say I won't miss some of the guys because I know the struggles and things that they go through," Neal said. "They are hard workers and unfortunately just haven't had the success a lot of teams have had.

"I hope the best for guys that I leave behind. The coaches and staff there, they do want to win. I'm happy to be here in San Diego. If I had to do it all over again, I would definitely come to San Diego and make this same choice. I am happy to be a Charger."

Neal now ends up working in front of his third straight Pro Bowl runner in the Chargers' LaDainian Tomlinson and tries to rack up his seventh straight season blocking for a 1,000-yard runner. They met at the Pro Bowl last month and Neal was taken with his work ethic and determination.

"Absolutely. I was excited when they called me and told me Lorenzo was joining us," Tomlinson said. "I'm excited about it. I'm looking forward to working with him. They always say in front of every good running back there's a great fullback. I'm pretty sure Corey is upset right now, but I'm smiling."

Neal, who also helped Dillon and the Titans' Eddie George get to the Pro Bowl, puts Tomlinson in that class of back.

"Right at the top with all those guys," Neal told the San Diego media. "You just don't run over 1,300 yards in this league without being in a good system and having the will to want to play. As a back, you get hit every time, especially carrying the ball as much as he does and the pounding you take.

"It takes a special person to go over 1,200 - 1,300 yards. He's a hard worker. I had an opportunity to visit with him in the Pro Bowl. He's a personable type of guy. He's got a great sense of humor. All I hear is great things about him. The talent is here and L.T. is a great back. He was awarded by going to the Pro Bowl. He definitely fits in with the best of them."

Neal gets a shot to play the Bengals this season, but he admitted that he doesn't have the thirst for revenge that he had when Tennessee released him before the 2001 season. The Titans wouldn't give him $700,000 a year. The Bengals did last year, but they apparently were prepared to give him only an average salary in the low $900,000s. But he's not bitter.

"When I left Tennessee, there was some hostility," Neal said. "I wanted to get them back on the field. But I don't feel that way about the Bengals. They put me on the map. I hope they do well. When we play them, it's going to be like going against any other team. But it will be good to see the guys again."

Neal is perplexed why the Bengals seemed preoccupied with his age.

"It's not how old you are, it's how you do," Neal said. "Check the film. Don't tell me my age. Tell me how I play."

Neal's gamble came up snake eyes. The Fresno native ended up back home for his boyhood team.

"I'm just delighted to be a San Diego Charger. I thank Coach Schottenheimer for giving me the opportunity to play with him, as well as Mr. (John) Butler and Mr. Spanos," said Neal as he was introduced at the news conference. "It's just an honor being able to play for a team you always wanted to play for growing up. I remember Dan Fouts, Chuck Muncie, Kellen Winslow, Charlie Joiner and James Brooks, that team was always my favorite team.

"Now to be apart of that legacy and play for a team that's on the verge of greatness. I know their coach well, and I have ultimate respect for Coach Schottenheimer and I know what he demands and expects out of his players. I'm excited just to be a part. My goals are high. My expectations are high, just like everyone else."

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