Caught in the Webb

5-1-01, 6:35 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

During the nine seasons left tackle Richmond Web watched Dan Marino's blindside in Miami for at least 11 games, the Dolphins never allowed more than 28 sacks.

The Bengals have done that five times in their history. The last time in 1995. And that includes the 1982 strike.

Which is just one of the reasons Paul Brown Stadium was a giddy place Tuesday.

Akili Smith remembers those TV commercials with Marino giving his Dolphins' offensive linemen designer gloves for Christmas because they treated him with kid gloves during his Hall of Fame career.

And Smith knows Webb, the newest Bengal, was the biggest reason why.

Are there going to be gloves under the tree for Cincinnati's offensive linemen this year from the Bengals quarterback?

"Whatever the linemen want," Smith said.

Webb's move from South Florida has uplifted a team that needed a big-name free-agent signing as badly as Al Gore needed his name big on some South Florida ballots.

The beleaguered Bengals finally got one. It was the kind of day where the agent for Carl Pickens signed the "Carl Pickens Clause."

That's the Bengals' clause, upheld by an arbitrator earlier this year that attaches standard NFL contract loyalty language to the signing bonus. It's designed to prevent a Pickens-type outburst that forces a team to release a player without getting back some or all of its up-front compensation.

Steve Zucker, Pickens' agent who also represents Webb, didn't blink. Webb is one of the classiest people in the game.

"Never an issue with Richmond," Zucker said.

It was the kind of day where Bengals right tackle Willie Anderson heaved a sigh of relief. There would be no more talk of him moving to left tackle.

"Now I don't have to

worry about changing my footwork and my angles," Anderson said. "If this doesn't solidify us over there, it certainly puts us in great position with three guys like Richmond Webb, John Jackson and Rod (Jones). I saw Webb play a couple of games (on TV) this year and I remember saying, 'Damn, he can still play.'"

Maybe the most relieved of all is Smith, whose 14 fumbles were second in the NFL last season. Many came in the pocket after he was blown up on rushes past Jones on plays that got Jones benched twice.

"It should be solidified now," Smith said. "But you just can't point the finger at Rod. I had a terrible year last year. Rod didn't have such a great year. The young receivers struggled. I just have to find a way to put all this stuff together."

But clearly the addition of one of the top pass protectors of all-time has taken a load off Smith's mind.

So have his workouts with new offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski and his receivers, where the theme has been trust.

The idea is for Smith to trust his feet and his receivers, another spot where Webb should help. The concept is to get rid of the ball quickly and anticipate the receiver's cut instead of waiting for the receivers to make the break.

Bratkowski brought a blindfold Tuesday and made Smith wear it for about 10 throws on quick in and out patterns.

Smith drilled his first four, missed the next couple, and finished strong.

"That makes him rely strictly on his feet," Bratkowski said. "I've always believed quarterbacks throw with their feet. You have to be in position to deliver the ball and this helps give him the feel."

Smith: "It's not easy. It's footwork and throwing to a spot. Trusting your receivers will be in that spot."

Smith doesn't think he'll be in the awful spot of getting stripped in the pocket and turning the game around for the other team with a huge fumble. Smith thinks he'll be better there not only because of the line additions, but also because of his work with quarterbacks coach Ken Anderson on ball position as he sets to throw.

"I must be doing all right with that because Kenny hasn't said anything in awhile about it," Smith said. "The idea is not to put it so high. Lower it so you can protect it with two hands. The bottom line is it's an Akili Smith fumble and that's my responsibility."

Smith, as well as people such as Anderson and offensive line coach Paul Alexander, isn't ready to give up on Jones. The Bengals would save $1.3 million under the salary cap if they cut him before June 1, $2.2 million if they release him after June 1.

But the club has made it clear it is extremely pleased with how Jones has lost nearly 35 pounds and is down at 317. Teams love to keep four tackles, so he's very much in the mix. Particularly if head coach Dick LeBeau thinks he's versatile enough to play guard and decides to make him a valuable utility man.

"My main thing is Rod is a good friend of mine and I love the guy," Anderson said. "I know he's a good player and I'm hoping he hangs with it because I know he can play and help us."

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