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Both sides wait on free agents

10-16-02, 7:35p.m.


Lorenzo Neal, whose first job was on a farm, is going to be faced with deciding if he wants to return to work for the Bengals in an offseason that could be as trying as the season if things don't change in a hurry.

Neal, the Bengals' five-star fullback who turns 32 the last week of the season, says he'll be looking for a light at the end of the tunnel in December as well as some offseason work-out plans as part of his decision.

"We've got a lot of guys participating, but are they committed?" Neal asked Wednesday of the early sessions. "The chicken participates, he gives eggs. The pig, he's committed. He gives his life for sausage and bacon. Commitment instead of participation. That's what we've got to have," from day one in March.

Since Takeo Spikes isn't talking about his contract situation until the end of the season and Gus Frerotte is enduring a benching that likely takes him out of next year's mix, Neal is one of the club's more high-profile free agents-to-be. Neal, one of the most visibly upset Bengals following last week's loss to Pittsburgh, is one of the test cases for how players on the market are going to respond to a team going through a nationally horrific season so far.

"I'd like to go through the transition," Neal said. "I'd like to play with Corey Dillon for the rest of my career, the next three or four years. But my thing is, give me the commitment that you're going to attract some people to help us get this thing turned around. Give me the commitment that we're going to turn the ship around. That's what will attract players."

Including Neal and Spikes, the Bengals have six regulars facing unrestricted free agency with starting center Rich Braham, starting strong safety Cory Hall, backup defensive end Bernard Whittington, and backup fullback Nicolas Luchey

"The bottom line is that no one should be even thinking about contracts right now," Neal said.

"The focus should be on winning. If you win, the contract will be there. Win, and we'll stop being laughingstocks."

Neal doesn't want to box himself in by basing decisions on an 0-6 start. And, apparently, neither does the team. They have not been active in re-signing players since the season began.

Agent David Levine, who represents Hall and Whittington, said his players aren't telling him to get them out of Cincinnati.

"None of my clients have told me they think the season is over," said Levine, who represents several Bengals. "They're telling me there's 10 games left. You win three or four in a row and it changes everything.

"It's just too early," Levine said. "The players want to see what happens and the team wants to see how they play, so I don't think either side is in a hurry to do something."

The Bengals approached Levine near the start of the season to extend at least one deal, but the offer wasn't enticing enough and there hasn't been much talk since. Neal, as well as Luchey, also turned down training-camp offers to extend because they didn't think the money was quite right.

Now, like Levine said can happen, things have changed drastically.

"I want to be able to see where we are in week 12, week 13," Neal said. "Do we have a chance? That's all I want. To be able to go out there and just have a chance. I want to see where we are and if we're headed in the right direction."

Neal would like to see a larger turnout for March workouts at Paul Brown Stadium. Most players work out on their own until the first-week-of-May minicamp kicks off a month of voluntary practices.

"(It) Lets you know that everyone is on the same page and everyone wants to go in the right direction. That's what it's all about for me," Neal said. "It's imperative that you get guys here and get guys buying into the program. There's a difference between commitment and participation."

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