Bengals give Rudi tender message

3-1-04, 9:15 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Bengals stated their case plainly Monday that their once and future running back is Rudi Johnson.

On a day the internet rumor mill churned Corey Dillon in the direction of Denver, the Bengals sent their message to Johnson's agent in the form of a one-year, $1.8 million offer that all but guarantees his services for 2004 and the hope that discussions for a long-term deal start soon.

Although the buzz had the Broncos taking the second-round draft pick they got from Washington in the Champ Bailey deal and shipping it to Cincinnati for Dillon to replace Clinton Portis, there are no indications such a deal is in the offing. Those close to Dillon had not heard from Denver as of Monday night, and Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis tight-lipped Dillon on a day he took the franchise on a major step into the future by naming Carson Palmer the starting quarterback.

But the offer to Johnson, about four more times than he made last season in racking up three 150-yard games, was also a major deal. The only way a club can now lure Johnson out of restricted free agency is if they give the Bengals a first- and third-round draft pick, a virtual impossibility. The Bengals could have tendered $500,000 less to secure just a first-rounder as compensation, but they obviously wanted to make sure like the Jets didn't last year before the Redskins swiped two of their players.

And, the decision to cut Oliver Gibson after five solid years in the middle of the defensive line also sends a message. This one about getting younger up front. The Bengals saved about $1.2 million this year on the salary cap with the Gibson move, making the Johnson hit a little more palatable.

"If we can't get a long-term deal, we're very comfortable about going on the market next year when Rudi is unrestricted," agent Peter Schaffer said Monday night. "But that said, we'd love to get something done with Cincinnati. This offer clearly shows he's their back for the long haul, and he loves it there. But if he's not comfortable with the numbers, he'll play it out."

Schaffer said the Bengals have indicated their interest in talking about a long-term deal and he's willing to listen. But he doesn't view playing with a one-year contract a risk, given that Johnson turns 25 on Oct. 1, just two months before Palmer on Dec. 27.

"That will give him two years as the No. 1 back, and he should be better because the team is going to be better and we'll have the leverage," Schaffer said. "But like I said, he loves the fans, the team and Coach Lewis and he'd like to play his whole career there."

The Bengals quietly tendered their other six restricted free agents at the low one-year number of about $630,000. That guarantees the Bengals compensation of where that player was picked in the draft if they lose him. They would get nothing for free-agent kicker Shayne Graham and free-agent defensive back Kevin Kaesviharn, but a fifth-rounder for guard Victor Leyva and tight end Tony Stewart, a sixth-rounder for linebacker Riall Johnson, and a seventh-rounder for wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh.

Gibson, who turns 32 in two weeks, was the best Bengals' free-agent pickup of the '90s. Before he tore his Achilles' tendon with seven games to go in the 2002 season, Gibson, who came over from the Steelers, started 57 straight games for the Bengals. In 2001, he led the defensive line in tackles, in 2000, he tied for the team lead in sacks, and in 1999 he was named the Bengals' "Unsung Hero," by the NFL Players Association.

But with the injury and the signing of tackle John Thornton in free agency last year, Gibson became too expensive to back up.

"We're very happy with what Oliver brought to our football team last year," said head coach Marvin Lewis, "but we're going in a different direction."

As if to recognize his considerable contributions down through the years, the Bengals decided to let Gibson go Monday instead of waiting after June 1 and saving another $600,000 under this year's salary cap. One reason was so the Bengals could take the entire cap hit in '04 and not send any more money into '05. The other was to give Gibson a shot on the market before money dried up.

"I think it was a goodwill gesture on their part," said agent David Levine, who doubted Gibson would return at a lower rate. "I talked to them at the combine last week and asked them if they were going to cut him, if they could do it sooner rather than later so he could be on the market as quickly as possible."

Thornton said he was stunned about the move, but knew what it meant.

"It's the oldest line I've ever been on," Thornton said. "I think Justin (Smith) and I are the two youngest of the guys that played a lot. Usually you've got some rookies or second-year guys, so I think this means they're looking for some young guys."

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