3-22-02, 9:15 pm. Updated:
3-23-02, 9:40 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Jeff Burris expertly negotiated the Cincinnati Friday 4:30 p.m. rush hour maze at the Interstate 74-75 floodgates. Now the Bengals just have to drive home a deal under the tightest salary cap in their history.
"I had significant talks with both the Bengals and Seattle today," said Schaffer late Monday night his time. "If I had to handicap the race, I would say the Bengals are in the lead. It could be done tomorrow. We'll see."
Schaffer, contacted less than a half hour after he had consummated Willie Roaf's trade to Kansas City, had been consumed by those talks Monday. But he had found enough time to negotiate extensively with Duke Tobin, Bengals director of pro/college personnel. Washington isn't Burris' first choice because the Redskins want him to play safety.
The Bengals covet Burris for his experience, smarts, and character and envision their most experienced cornerback tandem in years with the 147 NFL starts between him and Artrell Hawkins. Cincinnati would then have room to sign only one other free agent and they would no doubt try to make it their own Reinard Wilson.
"I just couldn't wait for the visit, to be honest with you," said Burris Friday upon his arrival in the Paul Brown Stadium locker room after the drive from Indianapolis. "My whole family is excited about it. . . .I think this is an organization that can win and be successful."
It seems Burris spent much of last week with Bengals teammates Tony McGee and Darryl Williams, as well as former Cincinnati cornerback Tom Carter, at a NFL Players Association event in Hawaii. On a day both sides wouldn't confirm a report in "The Cincinnati Enquirer," that Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe has told the Bengals he doesn't want to be traded to Cincinnati, Burris became the anti-Bledsoe.
After his client met with Bengals President Mike Brown, defensive coordinator Mark Duffner, and got a tour of the stadium, Schaffer said Burris asked him, "How do the Bengals get such a bad rap? He really liked the people and the facilities. We've talked and we'll talk some more and see where it goes."
Burris, the eight-year NFL cornerback, admitted his four years each at Notre Dame, Buffalo, and Indy make him feel at home in the Cincinnati market.
"Hard to say right now," said Burris with a smile about where the Bengals rate on his list. "It was an easy drive, I'll just say that."
A lot easier than say, swinging a trade for Bledsoe. Talks with New England apparently never get off the ground because the Bengals have been saying they don't want to give up their first-round draft pick for Bledsoe and the Patriots have been hinting they won't take less.
That would have made the second step moot. Which is getting Bledsoe to re-do his contract to make his salary cap count for this year smaller than $5 million and there has never been any evidence that the Patriots gave the Bengals permission to talk to Bledsoe about doing a new deal.
This week's re-signing of Hawkins signaled that the Bengals aren't going to wait around for the Pats to lower their demands. Hawkins' salary cap hit for this year is probably about $1.5 million, which according to published reports would give the Bengals $7 million under the cap About $3.5 million of that belongs to the club's rookie pool, which leaves room for Burris, Wilson, and a pad for injuries.
"We just don't have the flexibility under the cap at this point in the season like we have had in the past to add almost any kind of salary," said Jim Lippincott, director of pro/college personnel.
And Brown doesn't plan to squeeze more room by releasing players or re-negotiating existing deals because, P>
"re-doing deals just creates a problem in the future and pretty soon you find yourself like some of these other teams that have overextended on the cap and can only cut players and not add them."
Burris, who turns 30 in June, just became a cap casualty of the Colts. He never saw the last season of the five-year, $20 million deal he signed before the 1998 season. That's when he nearly came to Cincinnati for the same money after a phone conversation with then defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, now the Bengals head coach.
"Some of the things he said then, really impressed me. I'm looking for the same kind of things now," Burris said. "He said, 'My defense is built on having fun, and it also depends on the corners. My corners here will be good corners if they play within the scheme.'"
But LeBeau has never been blessed with experienced corners during his second stint with the Bengals. The only corners LeBeau has had with more than Hawkins' 48 NFL starts since he came back in 1997 is Carter, released this past season, and Ashley Ambrose, gone to free agency after two seasons in the system from 1997-8.
If Burris starts the 2002 opener, it will be his 100th career start. The club's other healthy corners (Mark Roman 10, Robert Bean eight, Kevin Kaesviharn three) combine for 21 NFL starts.
The 6-0, 190-pound Burris started all but one game last season in Indy, when he ran back one of his 16 career interceptions for a touchdown. His speed has reportedly diminished, but the Bengals won't be asking Burris to anchor an Olympic relay.
"He's been a top corner in this league for a long time," Tobin said. "He's smart, reliable and plays tough. Anytime you get an experienced cornerback like that who is still as athletic as he is, you re going to upgrade yourself."
Burris would fall into the "character signings," of last free-agency season, when fullback Lorenzo Neal and left tackle Richmond Webb used their combined 18 playoff games to improve locker room chemistry. Burris has been on four playoff teams and appeared in three post-season games. He missed three more when a knee injury wiped out the postseason for him in 1995.
"I am a football player. I play the game the way it's supposed to be played," Burris said. "I play the game with my heart, knowing what I need to do, being aware of what I need to do. Giving my all when I have the chance.
"That's what this game is all about," Burris said. "Playing and having fun and if you're not playing and having fun, you shouldn't be playing and I think I can bring that as well. Just the joy of the game. The teams that are winning are teams that are having fun at what they're doing."
Burris, who is married with two children ages four and two, said his friends from Cincinnati talked up the team and the town. But the most important conversations may have been between Lisa Burris and McGee's wife Laverne. Laverne, a former Cincinnati TV news personality, apparently had enough good things to say about the town that Burris said his wife "is excited as I am about this visit."
Burris said Williams had to "stop himself," as he talked about the Bengals before he finally told Burris: "I'm not going to paint a picture that, when you get down there it's not exactly what you expect. But I think you need to go on your own and make your own judgment."
"They did speak highly of the organization and I think they spoke from their heart and not (like) an employee," Burris said. "With Corey Dillon and Peter Warrick, proven studs, it makes a huge difference. You'd like to be a part of that."
The Cardinals' Corey Chavous, another corner on the Bengals' list, signed a similar $1.7 million per year deal in Minnesota Friday that Hawkins signed in Cincinnati earlier this week. The Bengals have also made inquiries about Chavous' Arizona teammate, Tom Knight.
Wilson, who led the Bengals in sacks this past season with nine, wants to make a decision by the end of next week. The Colts look to be the Bengals' biggest competitor, but agent David Levine won't talk to the clubs until next week.
It looks like the Bengals will only make an offer to a free-agent tight end if they don't come up with what they like in next month's draft.