4-04-01, 3:40 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
The Bengals are taking the national heat for lack of signing free agents despite having the most room under the NFL's salary cap.
But Bengals President Mike Brown remained solid in his belief Wednesday that improved quarterback play will do more than anything to turn around his team's "Lost Decade."
With the Bengals still in the hunt for defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield and mulling an offer to pass-catching tight end Itula Mili as well as taking stock of a glutted cornerback market, Brown still thinks he can make enough moves in free agency to improve the Bengals.
Citing a statistic from the NFL office, Brown said free agency isn't the ultimate panacea.
"No one writes about it," Brown said, "but the failure rate is 50 percent. Half of $2 million a year football players in free agency do not play as much for their new team as they played for their old team. We haven't won, but I don't think it's because of free agency.
" I think it's because we haven't had the play from our quarterback position that we need to have to be competitive. In the past here, that was where we were strong. We were a competitive team. In the last half a dozen years, we have struggled to get that position right. Most successful teams aren't highly dependent on free agents."
Brown salutes the most recent Super Bowl teams, Baltimore and the Giants, for their work in free agency. But he also notes the core players from those teams (Ray Lewis, Jamal Lewis, Jonathan Ogden, Chris McAlister, Tiki Barber, Michael Strahan, Jason Sehorn) came through the draft.
Brown also thinks the argument his team has lost 113 games in the last 10 years isn't because the Bengals have four full-time personnel people, the smallest department in the league.
"We plead guilty to not having won enough, but the reason for not having won enough isn't the size of our scouting staff, which is four times the size of Buchsbaum's and Kiper's," said Brown, alluding to draft gurus Joel Buchsbaum and Mel Kiper.
"Again, we haven't had the top-flight play at quarterback and when we have, we've competed with anyone."
Brown is banking on changing that with struggling third-year man Akili Smith getting revived with a new scheme and playoff quarterback Jon Kitna getting rejuvenated with his old offensive coordinator.
The last time the Bengals had a winning season, quarterback Boomer Esiason
threw 24 touchdown passes in 1990. The only time a Bengals' starting quarterback has hit 20 touchdown passes since is when Jeff Blake threw 52 in two of the three best years of the decade, when the Bengals went 15-17 in '95 and '96.
This year in the NFL, of the six AFC quarterbacks who threw at least 19 touchdown passes, three went to the playoffs. In the NFC, that stat was four out of the seven who threw at least 19 scores went to the playoffs.
The Bengals in the past two seasons? A total of 24 TD passes, the number we started with Esiason way back in '90.
P> "We've had success here on offense down through the years with teams that led the league or almost led the league," Brown said. "But it all revolved around the quarterback."
At the end of last year, Brown had hoped to use up the rest of his $1-2 million or so of cap room and some of this year's $10 million pad by reaching a deal with Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon. Dillon questions the Bengals' eight-year, $60 million offer, but no one quibbles that Cincinnati had a six-year deal in the $38 million neighborhood on the table that would have put him in an economic class with Eddie George.
"The reason we held back room last year was we wanted to try and sign Corey," Brown said. "It didn't happen. He turned it down. We still want him and that's why we're keeping some money for him."
The latest firestorm of criticism ignited last week when the Bengals couldn't lure left tackle Todd Steussie from Carolina. Critics felt the the Panthers' six-year deal with the 30-year-old Steussie for a $4.7 million signing bonus and a $2.4 million roster bonus for next year despite having just $1.5 million under the cap was a stark contrast to the-by-the-book Bengals.
But Brown had his reasons for not closing the deal. One of them is that a lot of people around the NFL feel the least risks and surest bets on top of this year's draft board are left tackles Leonard Davis and Kenyatta Walker.
"We had a luxury because that's a spot we can fill in the draft," Brown said. "Carolina couldn't."