Busy offseason looms

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Quarterback Scott Mitchell hasn't thrown a pass yet this week, but the 11-year veteran was on target Monday with this observation:

"No one knows what's going to happen here next year," Mitchell said. "No one knows what's going to happen with themselves. I signed a one-year contract and I'm not the only one in here in that situation. There's a lot of incentive for a lot of people to finish out the year and do a good job.

"If Coach LeBeau is the coach again next year," Mitchell said, "he's going to know the guys who tossed it in, or he's going to know the guys who fought hard and fought through things all the way."

Which is the biggest question of a litany of questions facing the club once this season ends on a not so Merry Christmas Eve in Philadelphia.

Is Dick LeBeau coming back as coach?

Bengals President Mike Brown prefers not to discuss the offseason until the offseason and LeBeau said Monday there have been no discussions. And he's not looking for any.

"I'm just trying to get better as a coach every day," LeBeau said. "I hope I'm back. But I'm looking at Arizona (this Sunday's game) right now."

The other huge off-season question is the contract status of record-setting running back Corey Dillon. Dillon is the biggest of the five offensive starters facing unrestricted free agency.

Dillon's agent, David Levine, met Monday with Bengals executive vice president Katie Blackburn to talk about some of Levine's 10 clients on the club. Dillon was one of those discussed, but talks were termed only as "general," and neither side would get into specifics.

Probably because there weren't any. Yet. The Bengals want Dillon back, but even his situation hinges on other factors. For instance, quarterback Akili Smith is 348 passing yards shy of an incentive that takes $1 million out of next year's salary cap.

Mitchell looks ready to start Sunday, but does Smith get more chances? And if the Bengals can't sign Dillon before free agency starts March 2, will they match another team's offer? What's the magic number?

More questions? Left tackle John Jackson was starting when he pulled a hamstring. The Bengals have made preliminary contact with his agent, but what can they pay Jackson after signing Rod Jones to a three-year, $9 million deal back in February?

And what of center Rich Braham and injured left guard Matt O'Dwyer, both facing free agency?

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LeBeau is plowing ahead, trying to better the resume that now reads 2-7 since he replaced Bruce Coslet after the third game of the season.

Asked what would be his No. 1 off-season priority if he was retained, LeBeau said, "To make Dick LeBeau a better head coach than he was when he knows darn good and well he's going to be the head coach. That will be the number one priority. I think I'm learning every day. I hope I don't have quite as much to learn next year. I'm just going to keep doing what I believe and we'll take that one step at a time but that would be my number one priority."

Mitchell, who knows a thing or two about head coaches with five in the last five seasons, thinks LeBeau's done a good job. Mitchell looks at him and sees himself in a similar spot coming off the bench to relieve Smith.

"I really like him," Mitchell said. "I have a lot of respect for him. It's been a tough situation for him to come into.

"I don't think it's everything he wants it to be or would have it be. He knows in the short amount of time you can't do it completely the way he wants to. . .I think for the most part he's gotten guys ready to play each week. Guys have fought and stayed with it."

But Mitchell was probably right on target again when he observed, "Really, the true test is how we finish out the rest of the season."

He knows he could have been talking about himself, LeBeau and just about everyone else.

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