The Bengals and the rest of the NFL head to Indianapolis Wednesday, but beyond that no one involved with the league really knows where they're going. Indications are all Cincinnati knows is it plans to tender offers to their restricted free agents and expects Jon Kitna to go on the market while vowing to sign a backup quarterback in the first week of free agency.
Of course, no one really knows when that will be, either. The free agency period is supposed to begin a week from Friday on March 3, but if negotiations for a collective bargaining agreement between the owners and the NFL Players Association heat up, free agency may be delayed by a week or two.
The CBA stalemate accounts for the inertia at Paul Brown Stadium and around the NFL because there is no dollar figure for a salary cap and no answer if the 2007 season is going to be uncapped.
An informal survey of agents representing Bengals facing unrestricted and restricted free agency indicates the club is waiting for a decision before trying to sign some of their own free agents.
"It's an interesting time because you've got both sides looking for a sign so they can go forward," said Jerrold Colton, who represents tight end Tony Stewart and defensive lineman Carl Powell. "I'd love to talk to them about both guys and hopefully we can do it this week in Indy."
The scouting combine is like the league's annual eclipse because it brings together the powerful forces of the league's executives and agents a week before free agency begins. On Friday, the agents have one of their annual meetings while the teams' brass also figure to meet on the same day in an effort to close the gap between the small-market owners and large-market owners on the divisive issue of revenue sharing that is at the heart of the stalemate.
The Bengals figure to be one of the 20 or so teams that want more revenue sharing to match a new and bigger salary cap that is going to include more revenue streams. A cadre of big-market owners don't want to give the other teams such a large chunk of their revenue, arguing it's not fair to penalize them for making money. Bengals President Mike Brown and his wing of the owners argue that the smaller-market teams need more revenue sharing to keep pace with a cap figure driven by big-market dollars.
Colton will probably get his chance to talk to the Bengals at some point during the weekend. Both his clients are interested in returning, but no one knows if they'll have anything to talk about this week. If a deal isn't in place by March 3, there will be no cap in 2007 and all money must be dumped into the 2006 cap, which is going to be either $92 or $94 million.
"It's not just the Bengals. I don't see a lot of teams extending contracts because they're waiting," said Mark Mersel, the agent for Bengals special teams ace Marcus Wilkins. ""And I guess we can wait, too. What if there is an uncapped year next year? Certainly we would sign a long deal if it was good enough, but I guess these are all things that have to be looked at. I know I expect to have a conversation with the Bengals, but it hasn't happened yet."
Wilkins, a backup linebacker, has led the Bengals in special teams tackles and been second in his two years with the team and is a guy they would like back.
Mersel would like to bring him back because, "He likes it there and he feels like he's part of a core of a winning team," but all of that is on hold.
All indications are the Bengals are going to tender one-year offers to all four restricted free agents: Wide receivers Kelley Washington and Kevin Walter, fullback Jeremi Johnson and backup guard-tackle Scott Kooistra., giving them the right of first refusal.
The Bengals can't match on Kitna and just as Kitna has made it clear to them that he will test the market, head coach Marvin Lewis made it clear last week that they won't wait for him and plan to sign a veteran quarterback by March 10 whether it's Kitna or not.
The market could be flooded by some big-name quarterbacks by March 3 because of cap issues. Guys coming off injuries like Daunte Culpepper, Chad Pennington, and Brian Griese could be set free and guys ranging from the Chargers' Drew Brees to the Jets' Jay Fiedler to the Saints' Aaron Brooks to the Redskins' Patrick Ramsey figure to be out there, although Washington will probably try to trade Ramsey first.
The new list probably affects Kitna more than the Bengals. It could dry up some of his opportunities, but the Bengals are still a bit hamstrung by the amount of money they can spend on a quarterback because of the $118 million extension they gave Pro Bowler Carson Palmer.
That probably keeps them in the Kitna tier, but the news continues to be good about Palmer's rehab from reconstructive knee surgery. Word is he was walking at Walter's wedding in Florida this past weekend.
There is one school of thought that says if Palmer does miss the first month of the season, is there a guy out there that can lead the Bengals to a 4-0 start no matter how much they give him? Plus, that guy will have to know he's destined to be No. 2 once Palmer returns.
"He thinks he'll test free agency and that's all fine," Lewis said of Kitna last week. "By the end of the first week, it seems like we'll have a quarterback signed, whether it's Jon or somebody else."