BY GEOFF HOBSON
Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. And, maybe in contract negotiations with right tackle Willie Anderson. One of Anderson's agents today said a deal was so close that a contract extension could be consummated with an E-Mail or a phone call in the next 24 hours.
Bengals executive vice president Katie Blackburn says the offer Anderson turned down last Friday at Spinney Field is still on the table, but admitted the club wants to have a handle on its salary cap situation before June 1 and would consider other options if they surfaced before Anderson takes the money. The deal is believed to be a six-year extension worth more than the $30.5 million deal Jon Runyan signed in Philadelphia.
But while agents Terry Bolar and Michael Brown continue to cite a "1.7 percent" difference in the two sides' offers, they also think that's pretty close. Predicted Brown:
"Contact will probably be made in the next 24 hours."
Also a factor pointing to a deal is that the Bengals will most likely have their franchise tag available to place on one of their unrestricted free agents after the 2000 season. Anderson, working on the final year of his rookie deal, is a leading candidate to get that designation in which the team gets the right to match offers if the Bengals make him a one-year tender that averages the NFL's top five richest contracts at his position.
"You have to look at that and you have to look at the fact that a lot of teams can't afford to spend. They're broke," Brown said. "With only 1.7 away, you have to feel pretty good about it. If you were a betting man, most likely you'd have to say it's probably going to happen."
Which is what the Bengals want to hear, because as Blackburn admitted today, they feel they've given Anderson "their best shot." It's belived they've already alleviated two of Anderson's major concerns by offering him more than Runyan's $6 million signing bonus and a comparable payout in the first three years in the $17 million range. For six years, the new money is thought to be the richest ever for an offensive lineman. For a seven-year deal, which includes this season at his current $1 million salary, it's in the top three.
Neither side will talk about where the 1.7 percent hangup is, but the club is clearly ready to act.
"I presume we'll talk again," Blackburn said. "But at the same time, if something else comes along, it gets to a point where we are going to look at it."
When it comes to June 1, only the Super Bowl and the draft are bigger dates on the NFL calendar. After June 1, NFL teams can lop pricey veterans and shove most of the salary cap hit into next season instead of this one. Plus, before June 1 the Bengals and sources around the NFL expect to learn that the NFL Players Association's grievance against the club has been settled and that they will be allowed to retain their franchise tag. When that happens, they will cut wide receiver Carl Pickens before June 1 as part of the settlement, take his $2.8 million salary cap hit all in 2000 and give themselves room in 2001 for Anderson and another potential free agent in Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon.
Blackburn is aware of pre-June 1 options for Anderson's money, such as Giants cornerback Phillippi Sparks, a Bengal recruit from March still on the market. After June 1, a batch of more corners are reportedly set to be free, such as Oakland's Eric Allen, Seattle's Willie Williams, Denver's Ray Crockett, the Jets' Otis Smith and the 49ers' R.W. McQuarters.
The Bengals could even take a look at Steelers nose tackle Joel Steed, supposedly about to be lopped because of balky knees, but a player still highly-regarded by Cincinnati defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.
After their rookies get paid, the Bengals figure to have only about $1.5 million under the cap this season. But Blackburn said the Bengals can still find a way to keep Anderson and Dillon long-term.