Braham eases transition

3-7-04, 7:55 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Rich Braham had to go to New York to get to Cincinnati and his trip on stand-by turned out to be another recruiting gem by head coach Marvin Lewis.

Braham flew to New York to meet with the Giants Friday, but he returned to a one-year deal with the Bengals Saturday that puts the center here for his 11th season and ease at least some of the worries about the transition from Jon Kitna to Carson Palmer at quarterback.

Indications are the Bengals did little if any negotiating Sunday as some of their free agents took visits. Safety Mark Roman should be getting down to serious numbers Monday in Green Bay, and ESPN.com reported that running back Brandon Bennett visited Cleveland on Sunday. On Friday, the agent for safety Rogers Beckett said the Bengals had an offer out to him, but he couldn't be reached for comment Friday night.

After losing right guard Mike Goff to the Chargers Friday in a five-year, $13.2 million deal, the Bengals obviously felt like they had to solidify the interior with the aging but seasoned and smart Braham. Braham said he signed the paperwork Saturday, comes in for a physical to finish it off Wednesday, and then the Bengals will have back one of their silent-but-strong leaders back in the fold.

The club won't comment until the deal is final.

"Coach talked to me before, during, and after (the trip), and he made it clear they wanted me back and they felt they needed me," Braham said Saturday night of Lewis' calls to him. "It's one of the reasons why I came back."

All Braham said he was looking for from the only team he has ever played for was "a fair hand shake." Which meant he wasn't going to play for the minimum after he did last year at $655,000. Or near it. Figure he got a bit north of $1 million Saturday, but it was one of those deals that is priceless before Palmer ever takes his first NFL snap from Braham Opening Day.

"Let the team announce the money, but let's just say it's a lot more than last year," Braham said. "I think it's a good deal for both sides. I never wanted to be anywhere else."

Palmer was a freshman in high school when Braham joined the Bengals off the waiver wire in November of 1994, so he'll reap the benefits of his smarts and experience. The center makes the calls for the Bengals' offensive line, and it was Braham's return to the starting lineup last year for the final 15 games that helped stabilize Kitna's Pro Bowl-like season.

"It's going to help him because it's another thing he doesn't have to worry about," said Braham, who turns 34 this November. "Now,

he can just concentrate on what he has to do to get better. We're all going to have to step up and I think this is just another thing that's going to make that happen."

For the third time in four years, Braham has come back to the Bengals after going out on the market when he didn't get what he thought was an enticing enough offer to stay. Last year, they didn't go after him until they didn't get a center in the April draft. But he had no bitterness that he had to go across the state line to get what he wanted.

"As an athlete, sure, you're disappointed you have to do that. You feel like you earned it. I had a good year," Braham said. "But when you look at it from a business viewpoint, you understand what the team is doing. They're trying to get some other players and they're all trying to get us to fit into the (salary) cap. It's a business. It's what they have to do. I needed to go out and get some leverage and it worked out."

Braham said the discussion in New York never got as far as specific contract numbers. And, he never bumped into Goff there, because Goff left the Giants Thursday for San Diego.

"It's funny because we talked," Braham said. "I called and asked him in what city he was in because I knew he was going all over, and when he told me he was in New York, I told him I was following him in.

"I don't know what the team has planned to replace him," Braham said. "I'm happy for him and we'll move on and try to replace him."

Braham has been hard to replace. Here's a guy who played nine games despite two arthroscopic knee surgeries in 2000 to relieve bursitis, and who has missed just one game since being diagnosed with a herniated neck disc after the third game of the 2001 season.

Tough? His picture is there in the dictionary. Whether it's in the 2005 edition is another story.

"We'll see what happens. I feel like I can keep playing," said Braham, when asked if this is his last season. "I don't know what they have planned with a one-year deal. Maybe they draft a young guy and they work him in, but I'm very happy to be back. This team is going in the right direction and I wanted to be a part of it."

His next start is going to be his 116th start since he lined up in the 1996 opener at left guard (his 72nd at center), and he still loves it. That's why he keeps playing.

"It's what I do every day of my life. Getting ready for a different team each week, playing the game on Sunday," Braham said. "It's my job. How can you not love it?"

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