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Bengals, Westbrook find each other

7-2-02, 7:00 p.m.


Michael Westbrook, the Redskins' former No. 1 pick looking for redemption, hopes he can also help the Bengals find themselves in that elusive deep passing game.

"It's great for both sides," said Westbrook after agreeing to a three-year deal with Cincinnati Tuesday afternoon. "All they have to do is throw me the ball and people are going to find out. I think that's been my main problem. People just forgot about me because I didn't get the ball."

All signs point to Westbrook taking the spot of veteran receiver Darnay Scott not only in the starting lineup, but also on the roster. Yet Bengals President Mike Brown wouldn't yet sign Scott's exit papers Tuesday evening.

"We now have two veteran receivers," Brown said. "We'll wait until the coaches get back from July Fourth to talk about what direction we want to go in. We think Michael is an excellent pickup. He's fast, he's strong, he'll jump and compete for the ball and he's a good catch."

The Bengals ended three weeks of negotiations Tuesday when Duke Tobin, the club's director of pro/college personnel met Steve Zucker, Westbrook's agent, at Zucker's suburban Chicago home. Tobin, a native Chicagoan visiting relatives, brought home a nice souvenir: his old college teammate at Colorado.

"He's going to help us," said Tobin, a former backup quarterback

for the Buffalos. "We just had to tweak some numbers today and it helped that we were meeting face-to-face. Steve was a great host, we had a nice sandwich, and it turned out to be a pretty good vacation."

And it means Westbrook, who turns 30 on Sunday, can finally pack his bags in Washington and leave some of the bad karma behind. As the fourth pick in the 1995 NFL Draft, Westbrook has only flirted with the numbers once predicted for him and there has been fallout.

Even though he and other observers feel he has matured since 1997, Westbrook still feels the town holding two incidents over his head from that season: his fight with teammate Stephen Davis and his costly unsportsmanlike penalty in a game against the Giants that might have cost the Redskins a playoff berth.

"It seemed like no matter how many catches I made, how many games I won, it always came back to the fight and that I was a bad guy," Westbrook said. "It always seemed like no matter how much I did in the community, or how many homeless shelters I helped, it just didn't matter. I was the bad guy. It's one thing to mature and get past it, but to totally leave that situation, I think I can leave all that stuff behind."

In fact, Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski wants him to be a leader among a young group of wide receivers.

"I told him," Bratkowski said, "I'm going to rely on him."

And Westbrook relishes the role.

"Last year in Washington with Marty (Schottenheimer), the coaches were looking to be leaders and not the players and I think that's backward," Westbrook said. "Then in the middle of the year after we were losing, it was, 'Hey, how come we don't have any leaders stepping up?' I was born to do that."

Bratkowski was a happy man Tuesday. He already has his plans for Westbrook.

"We're going to run him on the skinny post, we're going to run him deep down the field, we're going to run him off play action and throw it to him on shallow crosses coming over the middle from the weak side," Bratkowski said. "We want to go down the field with him. He's a very physical guy with a big body.

"I told him I'm going to rely on him for leadership," Bratkowski said. "He's had his situations, but even he told me he's learned. I think the young guys can learn from him."

One of the reasons Westbrook signed is because of that conversation with Bratkowski a few weeks ago. His plans reminded Westbrook of how he was used when he led the NFL with 18.3 yards per catch in 1999 during a monster season with 1,191 yards on 65 catches and nine touchdowns.

He led the Redskins last season with 57 catches and had four touchdowns for an 11.6-yard average that included a 76-yard touchdown catch. He reportedly turned down a three-year, $4 million deal in February to stay in Washington and has been looking since.

Scott, who also turns 30 Sunday, is the fourth-leading receiver in Bengals' history who averaged 92 yards last year in Cincinnati's six victories. But the club hasn't seen him since a sore left shin shelved him at minicamp two months ago. Plus, his status is also clouded by the final year of a contract that owes him $3 million this season in salary and a Sept. 1 roster bonus.

Terms of the Westbrook deal weren't revealed, but reported it as three years, $4.5 million with a $350,000 signing bonus. The deal most likely got done when the Bengals raised the first-year compensation to about $1.5 million with bonus, salary, and incentives,.

Whatever it is, it is at least half Scott's $3 million hit under the salary cap.

Scott is still on the team, but the 6-3, 220-pound Westbrook is looming after running what was timed on one watch as 4.35 seconds in the 40-yard dash during his June 10 workout at Paul Brown Stadium.

The timing convinced Bengals' officials he's at least as fast as Scott, if not faster, and that the reconstructed knee he tore up in the second game of the 2000 season is healthy. Because of his absence, the Bengals aren't so sure about the health of Scott, who also missed the 2000 season when he broke his left leg.

The Bengals haven't had a catch over 50 yards in this century, or in 34 straight games, or since Scott caught a 52-yard touchdown pass in the last Bengals game at Cinergy Field against the Browns on Dec. 12, 1999. In his career, Scott has 11 touchdown catches of at least 50 yards, but for the first time in his career last year he went through a season without catching a 50-yarder and he had a career-low two touchdowns.

In seven seasons, Westbrook has 277 catches for 4,260 yards for a 15.3 average and 24 touchdowns. In seven seasons, Scott has 386 catches for 5,975 yards for a 15.5 average and 36 touchdowns.

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