Bengals ink O'Dwyer, stalk QBs

3-1-01 BY GEOFF HOBSON

Looking to stabilize an offensive line that produced the NFL's second-best running game last season, the Bengals signed left guard Matt O'Dwyer to a three-year, $4.5 million deal.

Relieved right tackle Willie Anderson welcomed back O'Dwyer as a quiet team leader.

"Matt O'Dwyer played huge for us this year after he learned to play the right side last year," Anderson said. "That's a big signing for us because we have to keep our veterans. He's the kind of guy players respect."

With NFL free agency approaching at 12:01 a.m. Friday, the Bengals spent Thursday shoring up some of their own situations so they can do the bigger bidding.

They also reached a three-year deal with backup running back Brandon Bennett, an exclusive rights free agent.

But the Bengals couldn't land Scott Mitchell, the quarterback who played in favor of the benched Akili Smith and led the Bengals to a 2-2 finish.

Instead, they invited former No. 3 Colts quarterback Kelly Holcomb to drive from Indianapolis Friday to visit the club.

Indy cut the 6-2, 212-pound Holcomb on Wednesday after his third straight season without a snap behind iron man Peyton Manning.

But he's seen in some NFL quarters as an up-and-coming quarterback despite throwing for one touchdown and eight interceptions in 1997.

In his one NFL start, he threw for 236 yards. But that also happened to be the day former Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason began his comeback ride in Cincinnati's 28-13 win on Nov. 9, 1997.

The busy day began when the Bengals cut veteran backup cornerback Tom Carter and his $2.4 million salary. But the signings of O'Dwyer, Bennett and cornerback Rodney Heath earlier in the week count almost as much as Carter.

O'Dwyer gets $1.7 million this year, $1 million in a bonus, and Bennett and Heath are looking at similar deals for about $2 million each over three years.

"When it comes to money, everyone always

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wants more," said O'Dwyer, who was probably looking for something in the $2 million per year range and ended up with about the same $1.3 million average he had the last two years.

"The guard market is tough this year," O'Dwyer said. "There's about a million of them out there. But I'm a happy man. I like Cincinnati and the coaches. They work hard. I like the way Dick (LeBeau) ran things."

O'Dwyer missed the last five games with a broken ankle this past season. But the Bengals see him as a solid, dependable player who had started 74 of a possible 75 games before the Nov. 19 injury against New England.

"I busted my butt. I'll be ready in plenty of time for (May 4) minicamp," O'Dwyer said of his rehab. "It's just a matter of getting used to running on it again."

O'Dwyer, who turns 29 the week before the season, signed as a free agent from the Jets two years ago after New York took him in the second round of the 1995 NFL Draft.

O'Dwyer arrived from Jets coach Bill Parcells' doghouse as a hot-headed 15-yard penalty waiting to happen. He's calmed down and while foes still rave about his alleged questionable tactics, management and coaches love his tenacity.

"Matt made it clear to us that he didn't want to bounce around from team to team," said agent Mark Bartelstein. "He's happy in Cincinnati with the coaches and the town and feels comfortable in the system."

Anderson hopes O'Dwyer is more comfortable being more vocal in a locker room where he commands regard.

"I've been saying that more guys other than myself and Takeo (Spikes) need to step up and be leaders," Anderson said. "Matt has that capacity by the way he practices and plays. He knows the offense. He brought the kind of attitude needed on the line. He's earned the players' respect."

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