Bengals Gus it up

3-3-01 BY GEOFF HOBSON

The NFL version of "Survivor," started Saturday with the Bengals smack in the middle of an unfolding miniseries known as "Quarterback Challenge."

As Denver backup Gus Frerotte lunched with Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau and quarterbacks coach Ken Anderson overlooking Cincinnati in the Riverview Room, the agent for Pro Bowl quarterback Elvis Grbac met with Ravens officials. As Frerotte boarded a plane Saturday evening after a meeting with Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski, agent Jim Steiner was in a Baltimore hotel room attempting to reach a deal for Grbac.

But Steiner said he planned to follow Grbac into Cincinnati Sunday morning to talk with the Bengals about a deal if one couldn't be struck with the Super Bowl champions.

The Ravens reportedly have twin four-year offers to Grbac and Redskins quarterback Brad Johnson on the table, but Johnson's agent indicated he doesn't expect to make a move Saturday. The word was Johnson could visit Tampa Bay anytime soon.

When Grbac leaves Cincinnati Sunday night, Johnson figures to come in for his Tuesday visit on the way to Kansas City. Which means free agency's top two quarterbacks will be in Cincinnati within 36 hours, another franchise first.

It also indicates that Grbac and Johnson know the Bengals have more room under the salary cap than Baltimore and a sweeter deal may be waiting in Cincinnati. And, agent Mike Sullivan has told the club Super Bowl quarterback Trent Dilfer would be interested if contacted.

"I think they've made a new commitment to winning," said Frerotte during a break in his visit to Paul Brown Stadium. "The new stadium, the practice fields. They've got a heck of a running game, but it's the passing game that's been a problem the last few years and I think I can help them there. I think the players want to win here. I think they need that extra thing to get them over the top.

"Compare that to Denver, where we're expected to win every game, expected to be perfect in every practice, and I think I can bring some of that experience I've had with other teams and show them that, hey, you have to expect to play for four quarters every game and you have to expect to win and be the best. That's the only way to get to the top of this league."

Frerotte, who turns 30 in training camp, won't cost nearly as much as Grbac or Johnson. But the Bengals are mulling investing the money in one of the top two.

Their only hesitancy is a Grbac or a Johnson signing would financially end Akili Smith's run in Cincinnati after 15 starts as the franchise quarterback and there are many club insiders who still think Smith has the talent to be a top NFL quarterback and that it's too soon to pull the plug.

Although Frerotte wouldn't be as big of a threat financially to Smith, he's still a formidable opponent in the training camp competition LeBeau has thrown open.

"I want to be a starter out there

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** and this could be an opportunity for me," Frerotte said. "In Denver, they told me a I'm good player and Brian (Griese) is a good player and they want me to back him up. I don't think I'm looking for that right now. That was one of the nice things. I can come in here and compete."

The Bengals coaches like Frerotte's athleticism, experience, and arm strength. He looks at receivers Darnay Scott and Peter Warrick and running back Corey Dillon, and he envisions deep throws off play-action passes.

In the years he took his most snaps in Washington from 1995-97 he threw 42 touchdown passes, went to the 1996 Pro Bowl, and had a penchant for the big pass with a yards per pass average of at least 6.7.

The last Bengals quarterback to hit that mark in at least 10 games was Jeff Blake in 1995.

" "Experience. Toughness. Leadership. Pretty accurate. I can throw the deep ball," said Frerotte as he ticked off what he brings to the table.

"I think management of a game is a huge part of it too," Frerotte said. "Being able to go out and get guys lined up right."

Frerotte already had a first impression of LeBeau. It was back on Oct. 22, LeBeau's first victory as a head coach when the winless Bengals stunned Frerotte's Broncos, 31-21.

Frerotte, a Pittsburgh guy, ("It's something in the water,") thinks he's got a bit of LeBeau's old school in him.

"There was a little bit of a turnaround after Bruce Coslet left," Frerotte said. "(LeBeau) generally cares about the team, the players and winning. He's serious about getting this team back where it should be. He's the kind of guy who pulls no punches. I think he tells the truth. I liked him a lot."

The Bengals got stung a bit Saturday when defensive tackle Jon Randle signed a five-year, $25 million deal with a $5 million signing bonus in Seattle. Cincinnati was willing to play in the game, but Randle's people never got back to the Bengals Friday after an initial call.

One of the plusses for signing Frerotte or Seattle's Jon Kitna would be that the Bengals would have enough money left over to sign two top-flight defensive linemen. The Bengals want a tackle, but they need a pass-rushing end and will probably make another run at Buffalo's Marcellus Wiley. Titans end Kenny Holmes is reportedly headed to Cincinnati Thursday for a visit.

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