3-1-2001 BY GEOFF HOBSON
With NFL free agency less than 24 hours away, the Bengals joined the parade of teams releasing pricey veteran backups when they cut cornerback Tom Carter Thursday morning.
Carter, scheduled to make $2.4 million in a season he turns 29, was the Bengals' spiritual leader and probably most popular player in the locker room.
But he lost his job to rookie Robert Bean after the 23-6 loss in Dallas Nov. 12 in which he got beat for a 35-yard touchdown pass by Cowboys receiver James McKnight. He was also called for pass interference, one of 11 holding or interference calls against him last year.
Carter locked up the victories against Cleveland and Arizona with late interceptions and those two picks gave him the team interception lead with linebacker Takeo Spikes. With Carter's 27 career interceptions gone, the Bengals now have seven among their remaining cornerbacks.
"In this business, you're never really surprised," Carter said. "It's like I said during the season. You have to take the good with the bad."
Carter and his family like Cincinnati's spiritual community and plan to keep their home here for at least a few more years even if he signs with another club. There's always a chance he could re-sign with the Bengals later this year at a much lower salary.
"I never burn bridges. That's a possibility," Carter said. "We really don't know what God has planned for us. We have to wait and see."
The Bengals have three more free-agent quarterbacks to look at Thursday with Kansas City's Elvis Grbac, Buffalo's Doug Flutie and San Diego's Ryan Leaf getting lopped. Age and intangibles would suggest Grbac, a 30-year-old Cleveland native, might be the most appealing to the Bengals.
After Carter's release, cornerbacks coach Kevin Coyle called the competition "open," among four players who started games last season in Bean, rookie Mark Roman, Rodney Heath and Artrell Hawkins.
SMITH DATE DELAYED:** Akili Smith's day in a San Diego court has been pushed back, say those close to the Bengals quarterback. He was to appear Thursday after last month's arrest for suspicion of DUI.
BENGALS WON'T BLOW UP CAP: The agent for Bengals Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon said Wednesday night the Bengals haven't called in an effort to keep him off the market.
But agent Leigh Steinberg hasn't called the club, either, in the two weeks since he asked the Bengals to show his client a blueprint for the future.
"He's pretty much accepted the fact this day has been coming," Steinberg said. "We asked to see what the Bengals plan to do and to hear from them would have been a pleasant surprise. I guess we'll set up some visits (with other teams) and go from there. I haven't really thought about a contract yet."
Bengals President Mike Brown had no comment on the talks, but reiterated the club still expects to match virtually any offer for Dillon. The team, frustrated by negotiations in the past year in which two different agents recommended Dillon take the Bengals' offers, appears ready to let another team set the price.
Steinberg said Dillon has a close eye on what the Bengals do starting Friday at 12:01 a.m. as free agency strikes. The Browns and Bengals are jockeying daily for the title of the team with the most room under the salary cap at about $15 million as a record number of teams scramble to get under the $67 million cap.
"There are going to be a lot of good players out there and the Bengals have a chance to do some things," Steinberg said. "No question Corey is looking at getting the roster stronger."
Brown says the Bengals are ready to do so, but not with most of the 40 or so players who have been cut the last few days. Cincinnati plans to host former Bills defensive tackle Ted Washington Monday, but he's the only one at the moment sparking any immediate interest.
The club indicated it prefers to sign "two or three," of the players who become free Friday. And then maybe wait on some of the players released earlier in the week, such as former Rams defensive linemen D'Marco Farr and Ray Agnew.
"Most of these guys are too old for the money they're making. That's why they're getting cut," Brown said. "There's a generality that players rise and fall in a bell curve by age and to pretend that doesn't happen is to be be blind. If it wasn't true, we'd still be lining up with Isaac Curtis, Kenny Riley and Lemar Parrish."
With the first year of Paul Brown Stadium lifting the Bengals out of the NFL cellar of revenue, Brown is prepared to spend. But the club estimates it is somewhere between 16-20 in league revenue and Brown isn't going to drastically change his philosophy.
That's because revenue and cap count are different numbers and the Bengals are going to continue to shy away from giving long-term deals with big signing bonuses that dump money into future years.
For instance, while Washington plays for someone else this year, he'll still take up $5.3 million of Buffalo's cap count.
"A lot of teams that have done that, wish they hadn't," Brown said. "They're the teams cutting players left and right that they'd like to keep. They're the teams making this what is a so-called banner year for free agency. We feel we've handled it in a responsible fashion and don't plan to put off cap problems that will hamstring us in the future."
MITCHELL TALKS HEAT UP: The Bengals and quarterback Scott Mitchell engaged in more urgent contract talks Wednesday in a bid to secure a deal before Friday.
The sides appear to be grappling over what to pay a starter and backup, so figure the talks are ranging between $1 to $2 million per year. Tony Agnone, Mitchell's agent, plans to talk to the club again Thursday and says he'll try to work through the issues.
If there's no deal Friday, Agnone said, "I imagine we'll go in the market if they go into the market and look, but we'll probably keep talking to them."
RATTLER RESURFACES: Former Bengals cornerback Ken "The Rattler," Riley, who has the fourth most interceptions of all time with 65, got his first look at Paul Brown Stadium Wednesday and tried to tell Grambling head coach Doug Williams about the bad old days of Spinney Field.
"You don't have to tell me," said Williams, the former NFL quarterback. "Remember, I was in Tampa Bay."
Riley, the athletic director at Florida A&M, and Williams were in town to announce their matchup in the Sept. 15 Riverfront Classic at PBS.
Riley also got to visit with his old position coach who is now the head coach.
"I coached him his last four years and, believe me, he could have played another three," Dick LeBeau said. "Hey, he looks like he could still play."
"They wanted me to play another year and I probably could have played two," Riley said.
As it was, Riley played 15 seasons before retiring after the 1983 season. Long enough to pick off both Joe Namath and Dan Marino.
LeBeau said Riley had been talking retirement for his last few years, but LeBeau always wanted him back and would give him the ultimate jab: "You can't retire when I still have more interceptions than you."
LeBeau, who retired in 1972 with 62 interceptions for the third most of all time, had fun pushing Riley in that last season. Riley ended up with eight picks at the age of 36 and went out with two in his last game ever at Minnesota.
"We were going to the bus," LeBeau said, "and I remember him saying, 'Coach, I think this is my last trip. I can go now. I passed you."
LeBeau and Riley are big fans of each other and although they won't say it about themselves, they think the other should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The three players ahead of Riley on the all-time interception list are in the Hall and the only players with at least 62 interceptions who aren't in the Hall are Riley, LeBeau and Dave Brown.