3-26-02, 8:20 p.m. Updated:
3-26-02, 11:30 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
This time, cornerback Jeff Burris said yes.
And with that, the Bengals hope they have stabilized a secondary that has been rife with inexperience since he said no before the 1998 season. Burris agreed in principle to a three-year, $4.5 million deal Tuesday night and he is expected to sign this week.
ESPN.com reported the Bengals gave Burris $1 million to sign in a deal similar to the one the club gave its other starting cornerback, Artrell Hawkins, last week.
"That's a great addition. He's a quiet, calm guy who is going to be good in the locker room," said tight end Tony McGee, who spent time with Burris at a NFL Players Association event in Hawaii last week. "He's the kind of guy who comes early, stays late, and helps the kids. This is like a signing from last year, like Lorenzo (Neal) and Richmond (Webb). A leader type."
Like Neal and Webb,. he brings the post-season experience of three playoff runs. The 6-0, 190-pound Burris, who should make his 100th NFL start on Opening Day, turns 30 in June as he heads into his ninth NFL season. But the Bengals insist he still has plenty of the athletic, physical attributes that convinced them to pursue him after the 1997 season.
They thought they had him with a five-year, $20 million offer. But Burris took the same deal with the Colts primarily because new Indianapolis general manager Bill Polian was the man who selected him in Buffalo with the 27th pick in the 1994 draft.
This time when he visited last Friday and Saturday, Burris said, "I really felt comfortable with the city and the more I saw of the city the more I liked it. And you want to be around good people and I was impressed with the people that I had met."
Burris had plenty of sounding boards last week in Hawaii with McGee, free safety Darryl Williams and former Bengals cornerback Tom Carter. There was also Bengals defensive tackle Oliver Gibson, Burris' Notre Dame teammate, to call, and he also got charmed by defensive coordinator Mark Duffner's enthusiasm at the Friday dinner.
But the best pitch may have come on a trip downtown this past weekend, when Burris ran into a Cincinnati institution named Gus Miller, the owner of the world-
famous Batsakes Hat Shop who has given hats to people ranging from presidents of the United States to Paul Brown. He has pictures of both in his Walnut Street shop.
"I was walking around and I saw the hat shop and I went in," Burris said. "I was looking for a hat for my father and father in-law and I ended up talking to Gus. He's a wonderful man and we talked about so much. It helped make me feel at home."
What was different about now and '98? Peter Schaffer, Burris' Denver-based agent who developed a solid relationship with the club when Bengals vice president Paul Brown was a college student in Colorado, thinks it's pretty clear.
"The Bengals now have a top-flight facility and stadium, they have a top flight defense, and they put on a top-flight presentation," Schaffer said Tuesday night. "The Bengals of new came right out of the box with salary figures commensurate with the market. Put that together with a player who came in with an open mind and you've got a deal.
"Free agency is all about winning the ties," Schaffer said. "You can overpay like Jacksonville did. They got a lot of free agents, but they overpaid them and got hurt on the salary cap. If the Bengals keep doing it this way, they're going to win a lot more ties."
If Burris feels comfortable about Cincinnati, how do you think the Bengals feel about Burris? With him and Hawkins, they are now poised to line up on Opening Day with 147 starts on the corner.
Compare that to 44 in the 1998 opener, when they were forced to draft Hawkins in the second round and start him right away when Burris turned them down. Ashley Ambrose had all the 44 starts heading into the '98 opener, they had 16 in 1999 with Hawkins and the rookie Charles Fisher, 116 in 2000 with 29 from Hawkins and 87 from Tom Carter, and 53 last year with 35 from Hawkins and 18 from Rodney Heath.
"I think I can help bring chemistry to what we've got going," Burris said. "What did Cincy finish last year in defense? Ninth? You know they've got a lot of talent up front with the backers and rush. The elements are there, I just hope I can bring some of the experience."
Bengals wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who is writing a weekly off-season journal for SportingNews.com, just so happened to praise Burris in his entry for this week while discussing free-agent secondary players.
He called Burris "a playmaker," and "a complete player," who is "never out of position."
Reached Tuesday night, Houshmandzadeh was delighted.
"As a rookie, I watched every corner we played trying to learn them," said Houshmandzadeh, who was injured when the Bengals played the Colts in the exhibition finale. "He knows how to jam guys at the line and he knows how to play a cover 2, where to go on each route. He's got eight years in the league, so you know he knows something."
Some NFL personnel people think Burris has lost a step or two and he was the starter on a Colts' defense that gave up the most points in the league last season. But he also started on their playoff teams in 1999 and 2000 and showed enough on tape this past season that the Bengals didn't think there was much of a gap between Burris and Walt Harris, whom took Burris' spot in Indy at double the price.
The wooing of Burris comes at a time when the Bengals are getting Bledsoe-Banged. Although Bledsoe's father has denied his son has made it known to the Bengals he doesn't want to be traded to Cincinnati, the story is being pushed Bledsoe is just another guy who doesn't want to play for the Bengals.
"If you're 1,000 or 2,000 miles away, it's easy to see only that and to hear only that," Schaffer said. "But if you sit down and look at it, the stereotypes that were there five, six, 10 years ago aren't there any more."