Capping criticism?

11-6-01, 9:55 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Bengals' careful approach to the NFL salary cap is carrying the day both at the line of scrimmage and on the bottom line with a 4-3 record that is getting a bang for its buck.

In a league where many teams are struggling through a Cap Crisis, conservatism looks to be in. Buffalo (1-6), Dallas (2-5), and Washington (3-5) are in a death struggle with rosters that had to be purged because of economic excess.

The Bengals, on the other hand, are making a playoff run with all their core players wrapped up contractually for next season while national web sites report them about $12 million under the 2002 salary cap. ESPN.com reports the Bengals are $2.7 million under this year's cap while division rivals Jacksonville and Tennessee are about a combined $200,000 under with a 5-9 record.

With defensive end Justin Smith and wide receiver Peter Warrick well on their way to hitting incentives that take about a $2.5 million hit, the Bengals are going to end the season virtually capped out. A compromise in the structure of Smith's option bonus nets him $2 million this season if he takes a minimum number of snaps. And that's where he's headed as he prepares to start his third straight game.

Which is how the Bengals want it in a philosophy primarily executed by chief negotiator Katie Blackburn, the club's executive vice president. Each year is contained, with as little money as possible shoved into future years, or spent on players no longer with the club.

So while Jacksonville is in grave danger of losing estimable linebacker Kevin Hardy in the offseason, the Bengals have already started groundwork to re-sign linebacker Takeo Spikes. They have also made forays with defensive end Reinard Wilson and cornerback Artrell Hawkins before they become free agents at the end of the season.

The Bengals' next two games against Jacksonville (on the road this Sunday) and Tennessee (at home next week) provide a stark fiscal contrast. The Jaguars and Titans are a combined $41 million over the salary cap for next season, according to ESPN.com. Those figures are known as "cash over cap," which pushes big bonuses into future cap years. It's a device that NFL observers such as "Sports Illustrated," senior writer Peter King doesn't feel is dead, but is certainly exposed.

"Anytime you get a team that thinks it is a few players away from the Super Bowl and has an aggressive owner, you're going to get cash over cap," King said. "But there's no question lessons have been learned from teams like Dallas and Washington. I think the Bengals have done a good thing cultivating their own players and getting them signed before they go on the market. . .The season isn't over, but so far you have to say they did sign some free-agents (wisely) in the offseason."

Bengals President Mike Brown isn't looking to crown himself Executive of the Year and there are some agents who think that one good season out of 11 shows the cautious approach isn't edgy enough to win consistently. Yet agents like Ralph Cindrich applaud what the Bengals are doing.

"I think they are definitely becoming more pro-active. I sensed that this year," said the Pittsburgh-based Cindrich, who dealt

with the club on free-agent quarterback Gus Frerotte back in March. "You root for a team like that because they do it like the Steelers and try to keep it in line in a small market. But I think there are times you have to go to the edge to be successful in sports."

After seeing his team rated an underdog this week against a team with an inferior record, Brown isn't saying he's got all the answers.

"I wouldn't say we're close to proving anything," Brown said. "But I can tell you this. It's pretty apparent what happened to teams that went cash over cap. They had to pay a penalty. Today, I think many of them would do it differently."

After inking Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon to a franchise-record five-year, $26.1 million deal this past offseason, Blackburn is already eyeing getting something done with Spikes and middle linebacker Brian Simmons before their contracts expire after the 2002 season.

In fact, Spikes' agent, Hadley Engelhard, said Tuesday he has already had some good preliminary talks with her and both sides wouldn't mind getting something done before the start of next season.

"Takeo wants to get it done before the season starts so he can think only about football and not have the contract be the talk," Engelhard said. "The Bengals appear to be ready to discuss that and we'll be talking soon about parameters."

The Bengals would much rather give their own players the money than veteran free-agents. Since May of 2000, the Bengals have re-upped Dillon, right tackle Willie Anderson, both guards in Matt O'Dwyer and Mike Goff, center Rich Braham, defensive tackle Oliver Gibson, left outside linebacker Steve Foley, and backup linebacker Adrian Ross.

But Brown and Blackburn showed this past offseason when they had the money and needed a player, they spent it. Which is how they got five starters (quarterback Jon Kitna, fullback Lorenzo Neal, left tackle Richmond Webb and defensive linemen Tony Williams and Bernard Whittington) in free agency.

Still, it had to be a certain contract.

"What you have to avoid is getting too many guys who can't play for the length of their deal," Brown said. "If you're accounting for a guy who is no longer on your team, that's a misallocation of resources when you have to eat the cap count. The less you do of that, the sounder you are."

The Bengals took heat when they didn't want to give 30-year-old left tackle Todd Steussie a big signing bonus over five or six years and lost him to Carolina. But the club has been delighted with the 34-year-old Webb and a three-year back-loaded deal with the Bengals on pace to give up the fewest sacks in their history.

The Bengals also got ripped for not offering 33-year-old defensive tackle Ted Washington more than a two-year deal. But they ended up with a highly-regarded player seven years younger in Tony Williams at tackle.

Even before fullback Nick Williams went into the MRI machine to confirm a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee at May minicamp, Brown had his people start hammering out a two-year deal for Neal, 30.

"One lesson that we learned is you can pursue players simultaneously," Brown said. "If you don't get one, go to the next one. We did that both at quarterback and on the offensive line and I'm not sure we didn't come out on top the way it ended up even though in some cases we pursued other guys harder then the ones we got. The thing it shows is you can adjust and we did."

King, like Brown, still wants to see the final results.

"I think it's easier to say (the conservative approach) works if you're a good team and you're under the cap," King said. "I've been saying for years the Bengals aren't cheap. They just haven't been able to get good players because they've had a bad record. Maybe they're in an advantageous cap position because of that."

But King agrees with some of Cincinnati's recent moves.

"I wouldn't have given Steussie 8 jillion up front, either," King said. "Look at the Redskins. In 2000, they signed the 1996 Pro Bowl team and it got them nothing but in a hole."

Maybe Brown had the right mix, but couldn't get results until he made the coaching change that yielded LeBeau. As Engelhard said, "There are different ways to do it. There is no clear-cut formula."

David Levine, the agent who just negotiated Foley's contract extension, says there two sides to the Bengals' approach.

"When you do it that way, you're not maximizing what you can do in that given year," Levine said. "Yet it gives you a competitive advantage in the future. Sometimes, that will take several years to become a winning team in the future. But the Bengals have a good young core and look to be only a couple of players away."

Brown thinks more teams will be more frugal. He only has to look at the Bengals' new division next year. In the AFC North, only Baltimore is overdrawn at $16.8 million for the 2002 cap, according to ESPN.com. That site has reported Pittsburgh has about the same $12 million as the Bengals, and Cleveland has the most to spend with about $15 million. The Bengals do play Jacksonville and Tennessee in 2002, but only once.

"We'll be able to do some things, but so will other teams," Brown said. "And with (expansion) Houston out there, they can probably get anybody they want."

The cutoff to re-sign players and put some money into this year's cap is Nov. 12. The Bengals have made a run recently to re-sign Wilson and Hawkins in a season they have emerged as key players, but have come up short. Levine, Wilson's Florida-based agent, said he'll talk with Blackburn when the Bengals visit Jacksonville this weekend. Wilson, the former first-round pick having his best year, already has three sacks and is just three off his career high with nine games to go.

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