BY GEOFF HOBSON
The Bengals took the next step in keeping running back Corey Dillon in Cincinnati Monday when they informed the NFL they are designating him a transition free agent.
Dillon, heading into his fifth season, can become a free agent March 2. But the transition tag means the club retains the right to match an offer sheet. In order to tag Dillon, the Bengals tender him a one-year contract for $3.66 million, the average of the league's top 10 paid running backs.
Dillon made $3 million this past season after holding out the first three weeks of training camp without a contract. He cashed the one-year gamble with a club-record 1,435 yards that included an NFL-record 278, his second straight Pro Bowl, and a shot at an elite running back signing bonus in the $12 million range.
Dillon and agent Leigh Steinberg couldn't be reached for comment on the move both sides expected after Dillon fired agents David Levine and Jim Sims last month.
Those agents claimed Dillon turned down the framework for an eight-year, $60 million extension with a $12 million bonus. Dillon said he had no knowledge of a $60 million figure on the table.
Bengals President Mike Brown continues to reiterate what he has said since the day Dillon was named to the Pro Bowl back in December:
The Bengals think it's highly unlikely the club won't match an offer and expect Dillon to be here next season and beyond. But the club says it won't start negotiations with Steinberg where the last negotiations finished.
The Bengals won't comment if the sides have spoken since Steinberg became Dillon's agent Jan. 15.
"Both sides are using the system and Corey understands this," Brown said. "We'd like to sign him, but we also have to protect ourselves."
Dillon keeps saying he wants to go to a winner and has given indications he wants no part of a long-term Bengals deal until he goes on the market.
Running backs coach Jim Anderson expects no problems with his player when the club is expected to match.
"He's fine," Anderson said. "It tells him how much we think of him. He knows we wouldn't do anything else. It's the ultimate compliment."
DILLON DENIED ESPY:
Dillon, nominated for an ESPY in the Record Breaking Performance of the Year category, lost out Monday night to tennis ace Pete Sampras and his career record Grand Slam singles titles at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.
Dillon and his NFL-record 278 yards against the Broncos on Oct. 22 in Paul Brown Stadium had some competition as stiff as his arm without the ball.
Also up for that Espy was Olympian Marion Jones and hockey goalie Patrick Roy.
Last year in Sydney, Jones became the first woman in track and field to win five medals in one Olympics while Roy set the NHL's all-time record for career victories by a goalie when he passed Terry Sawchuk.
With the addition this year of sports writers, editors and columnists to the ESPY Awards Academy of broadcast media, Dillon had the benefit of a diverse voting pool.
But on Friday, two new of the new voters suggested it would be tough going for Dillon.
"I went with Pete Sampras, but I think Corey Dillon had a great day," said Jeff Jacobs, the sports columnist at "The Hartford Courant. "It's kind of an apples and oranges category. I went with Sampras because I think it had more of an impact in history because we're talking about a career record and not one day."
It was also tough going against an Olympian. Bernie Miklasz, sports columnist with the "Post-Dispatch," in St. Louis, gave the nod to Jones.
"Anything on the Olympic stage is going to transcend what happens in one NFL game," Miklasz said.
SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS: But the Bengals did win on the national stage Monday night when rookie long snapper Brad St. Louis and his fiancee, Michelle, won a wedding in Amsterdam on the WB Network program, "Kiss The Bride."
As in right away.
They won a spot on the show last year, when St. Louis proposed to her on the Paul Brown Stadium scoreboard during a team's off day. On Monday, they beat other couples in a series of competitions to earn a wedding on the spot.
They almost won $1 million, but St. Louis couldn't kiss her for exactly 14 seconds. The couple did win $5,000 in prizes.
COURT RULES: A Cincinnati-based appeals court ruled Friday that individuals who bought seat licenses at Paul Brown Stadum from Hamilton County are not required to arbitrate their claims, but can litigate their claims in court.
The club expressed disappointment because it felt arbitration would resolve the claims quicker and provided faster relief to season-ticket holders who claim they didn't get the seats they paid for.
"Now that the forum for the claims has been decided," the Bengals said in a press release, "the club hopes that Hamilton County – which sold the seat licenses _ will move forward to refund to seat license purchasers money that reflects the difference, if any, between the original seating diagram set forth in the County's sales brochure and where the season ticket holder ultimately was located."
The Bengals hope to begin relocating season ticket holders who have been asked to move soon because they say people might not be able to be moved until the 2002 season.
At least four other NFL towns have experienced ticket lawsuits, including Denver, Tampa, Oakland and Cleveland.
EUROPE BOUND: The Bengals signed former Louisville guard Anthony Byrd to a two-year deal and plan to send the 6-5, 267-pounder to NFL Europe.
Byrd joins safety JoJuan Armour, safety Gary Thompkins, fullback Ricky Brown, defensive tackle Keith Jackson and tight end-long snapper Kirk McMullen on the road to Europe.
Byrd, a 1999 first-team All Conference USA tackle, was waived last August after the Jets signed him as a free agent.