Bengals won't back off tackles

3-24-01

BY GEOFF HOBSON

With Ross Verba now a neighbor in Cleveland instead of a bookend in Cincinnati, the Bengals remain focused on solving their left tackle problems with free agency's last coveted option.

The club is now intent on signing former Viking Pro Bowler Todd Steussie in an attempt to fill a spot that has seen 10 different starters since Hall-of-Famer Anthony Munoz retired after the 1992 season.

"We think Todd can give us consistency there that we haven't had in a long time," said Bengals scout Duke Tobin, who is negotiating with Steussie's agent. "We think it's a two-way fit. We're looking for a guy to be a standout over there for some years."

The Bengals seem determined to fill the decade-long hole this year, which was manned as competently as ever in the post-Munoz era last season by 36-year-old John Jackson. Jackson is back and indispensable, but the Bengals are also seeking a long-term answer.

If Steussie, also entertaining an offer from Denver, proves to be elusive, then the Bengals can turn to the draft board and two highly-regarded prospects. They are enamored with the volume and force of Texas' Leonard Davis and the athleticism and footwork of Florida's Kenyatta Walker as they prepare for the fourth pick in the draft.

How urgent are they? They have backed off every other position in free agency for the moment while continuing to bring in tackles for visits. In 10 days, they will host Tampa Bay's Jerry Wunsch and San Francisco's Scott Gragg.

Both are pure right tackles who would have a hard time moving to the left side, particularly the 6-8 Gragg who helped Charlie Garner to 4.4 yards per carry last season.

Bengals right tackle Willie Anderson has said he wants a raise of $1 to $2 million if he has to move to left tackle, but that's not stopping the club from looking at all its options in the wake of Verba signing in Cleveland Friday.

The Bengals thought they had an excellent chance Thursday to get him. Unlike the Browns, the Bengals were going to put him at left tackle, the position he said he wanted to play. And Verba indicated Cincinnati offered a comparable deal to the four-year, $16 million pact he took in Cleveland, where he is projected to play right tackle.

"We were disappointed because we thought our offer was as competitive with anyone out there and he's played on the left side of the ball as long as he's been in the league," Tobin said. "But we've got other options and we're pursuing them."

Verba told Bengals.com that the Browns and Bengals were "pretty equal across the board," when it came to coaching, facilities, and money.

"I just went with my heart," Verba said. "I based my decision on where I thought the best place was for me and my family."

Verba said the Browns made their offer earlier this week than the Bengals and that it was a factor in his decision.

"That had something to do with it," Verba said. "It wasn't a big thing. But you take everything into consideration. It came down to the wire."

Later in the day, Verba elaborated on the decision when he told Tony Grossi of "The Cleveland Plain Dealer," there were four reasons why he went to Cleveland. And none of them had to do with playing left tackle:

His heart, new head coach Butch Davis, the Browns' young players, and the "Puppy Pound," which is a section of the stadium for players' families.

"I'm a firm believer in history repeating itself," Verba said. He pointed to himself, quarterback Tim Couch and defensive end Courtney Brown and compared it to the '80s Super Bowl trio in San Francisco of Joe Montana, Charles Haley and Harris Barton.

Verba said he knew he had to play for Davis, the Browns' first-year head coach, the moment he shook his hand.

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