5-4-02, 3:00 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Takeo Spikes and Brian Simmons, the franchise linebackers around which the Bengals have built the NFL's ninth-best defense, start their fifth seasons not knowing if there is going to be a sixth in Cincinnati with one year left on their contracts.
Oh, one of them will no doubt be back. But which one, and if both will return in 2003, are still matters that need to be hashed out.
"We're still working the numbers," said Bengals President Mike Brown, who has never hid the fact he wants to keep both but that it will be difficult under the salary cap. "That's a question for next year, not this year. You can try to solve the problem or part of the problem this year. But these things change daily. As it stands now, we're looking to see if we have an opportunity to approach Simmons and Spikes."
Before the first team drills of the season Saturday at Paul Brown Stadium, both seemed content to wait and see.
Simmons: "When they feel like they want to do something, then I guess that's the time. It's out of my hands. All I can do is play football.
Spikes on testing free agency: "It wouldn't be a bad thing to even think about, but on the minus side the financials the last couple of years aren't that good. Whenever a player goes to another team, he doesn't get his net worth. That's something to think about. There are a lot of things to weigh. Ultimately, I want to win."
Asked if he wants to re-sign, Spikes,
the team's three-time tackling leader at the right outside spot, said, "If we're winning."
He and Brown do agree on one thing. Neither wants negotiations during the season.
"I just want to play and go out and worry only about football," Spikes said.
"Whenever they feel like they want to do a deal," said Simmons, who also isn't crazy about doing it during the season.
And Brown knows why.
"It's a distraction to the player, it's a distraction in the media, it's a distraction to other people around the team," Brown said. "You want to avoid it during the season. But with this system, sometimes it can't be avoided and you have to do it then."
According to various national reports, the Bengals have about $2 million under the cap with the signing of of quarterback Gus Frerotte ($1.4 million) and the rookie pool of $3.4 million.
Spikes says it's not too late for an extension and that he's not in a rush. And that means he won't rush into a deal, either. He smiled when asked how he'll know if the team is going to win if he signs before the season, or early on.
"That's a risk you take," he said. "It's too early to tell. Everybody on the defense is back and that's a beautiful thing. We made some moves. As far as them being the right moves, you never know until we start playing."
Simmons, regarded as one of the fastest middle linebackers in the league, said this season is a bit different for him.
"This is the last year I know for sure I'm going to be here," Simmons said. "I don't know what is going to happen after this year, but all I know is this is my last one until something changes and I want to make it a winning season."
The only reason it's conceivable to think one of them might not be back is the Bengals' linebacker depth, which was back at full strength Saturday for the first time since backup right outside backer Armegis Spearman's season-ending shoulder injury in last year's pre-season finale.
Spearman, named to the Football News 2000 All-Rookie team, had surgery to repair the torn pectoral muscle. He said before practice he has his range of motion back. Adrian Ross, who signed a three-year extension last training camp, was a starter when the Bengals ran a 4-3 defense. He began drills backing up Simmons in the middle.