Debate capped off

3-28-01, 8:30 p.m.

PALM DESERT, Calif. Welcome to the Bengals' annual chicken-and-egg dilemma when it comes to the barnyard politics of NFL free agency. The days when the Bengals offer players similar money if not more (Elvis Grbac, Ross Verba) _ and they still opt to go elsewhere.

What comes first in the ability to lure quality free agents that revive a struggling team?

Is it the break-through, high-priced free agent who publicly legitimizes rebuilding a franchise and who brings other key free agents and turns a loser into a winner?

What comes first?

Or is it the break-through season on the field that convinces free agents they can be the missing piece that turns a team on the verge into a full-fledged contender that can end up in the Super Bowl?

How can you win without free agents and how do you get free agents if you don't win?

To the agents, scouts, personnel men and all the little birdies who populated the NFL's annual league meeting this week, there is no riddle. They say a team like the Bengals that hasn't been able to get over the hump since free agency started eight years ago has to overpay players.

"They're the little red-headed step child," said one agent. "Teams just use them as leverage and move on to the team they want."

But to Mike Brown, the Bengals' president whose fiscal sanity is at the same time maddening to his fans and admirable to his peers, overpaying continues not to be an answer. He still thinks a productive quarterback, via free agency, the draft, parcel post, or e-mail is what puts a team over the top in the NFL.

In the face of withering criticism, Brown won't back down from his philosophy that has allowed the Bengals in this age of economic irresponsibility to remain the team with the most room under the salary cap.

While teams continue to postpone their salary cap counts by paralyzing themselves in future years with big signing bonuses (Jacksonville, Buffalo, Dallas), Brown continues to work at balancing his payroll among his roster and future years.

The most recent example came Wednesday, when the bidding for former Vikings left tackle Todd Steussie got rich by a Carolina team that has a little more than $1 million under the cap, according to national reports, as they joined the Bengals and Denver in the derby.

Yes, Steussie seeks a very moderate cap number for this season and it would be nary a dent in the Bengals' $10 million pad.

But the Bengals don't want the contract to be bloated in future years. Believe it. The Bengals covet Steussie highly. But with linebackers Takeo Spikes and Brian Simmons heading into free agency after this season, Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon unsigned, and incentives for Akili Smith and Peter Warrick possibly inflating into millions, Brown isn't about to tie up money in the future starting now.

It's an admirable quality in a month when most teams are Keystone Copping it around the salary cap in being forced to jettison everything from Pro Bowl quarterbacks to playoff heroes.

"Every team has a limited amount of money to spend," Brown said

of the $67.4 million cap. "It's finite. And if you overspend it on one player, you can't use it on another player that might deserve it more. You unbalance your pay schedule and that isn't a good thing. So you have to stay on course. You just can't go out and give a ridiculous amount of money. I don't think anybody does that any more."

Indeed, in this bearest of bear markets, Brown has already overpaid for the two unrestricted free agents the Bengals have signed. He gave Seattle quarterback Jon Kitna $5 million of his $12 million deal this year, two weeks before Tony Banks got just $500,000 for this season in Dallas with no bonus and no incentives.

And the Bengals gave Vikings defensive tackle Tony Williams $4 million to sign, a million for each of his sacks in 2000.

But the Bengals get ripped and they know why. Because they lose.

Welcome to the debate. Chicken or the egg?:

"You have to convince guys they can win there," said new Bills president Tom Donahoe, a man highly-regarded at Paul Brown Stadium for his work with the Steelers.

"Part of what you're fighting is just the perception of the place," Donahoe said. "You may have to spend a little bit more than you want to. When you have a tradition, it's a little easier to sell your program than when you're trying to build something. That makes it harder. . .It's a little bit a matter of turning around a negative image. The new stadium and (head coach) Dick LeBeau are steps the right way. Now it's winning. Like what (the Packers') Ron Wolf did when he signed Reggie White."

This is the debate:

Brown will argue the Packers went over the top when a Hall-of-Fame quarterback in Brett Favre emerged and not when White decided to play on the frozen tundra.

"Look at the teams who have overpaid and overspent," Brown said. "They're paying a very deep price right now."

Ask Jacksonville coach Tom Coughlin, who had to cut $33 million and 15 players just to get under the cap and could end up losing franchise quarterback Mark Brunell in the quagmire.

And the Jaguars have yet to get to the Super Bowl. But Coughlin is glad the Jags spent the money the last three years to complement a roster full of talented skill players and defensive playmakers.

"I think teams will still spend," Coughlin predicted. "But they'll pick and choose their spots. And when they've got the nucleus, they'll go after it."

Like Tampa Bay has this season. If there is a team the Bengals can find hope, it's the Buccaneers of coach Tony Dungy and general manager Rich McKay. Despite the sun, the water and no income tax, Tampa Bay had as much trouble luring free agents in 1994 and 1995 as the Bengals do now.

Here is a team that six years ago would make 100 calls on free agents and maybe get 10 responses. And last week sackmaster Simeon Rice wouldn't respond to a pleasant offer from the Bengals because he was waiting to hear from the Bucs, the team that ended up signing him. The idea of playing next to Pro Bowl tackle Warren Sapp on a playoff team was all the capital Tampa Bay needed.

Last year, Dungy thought there was no way he could sign Viking guard Randall McDaniel. But they were coming off an NFC title game appearance, so there was McDaniel calling Dungy, telling him he'd do whatever it took under the cap to fit in and play for the Bucs.

Chicken or the egg?

"It's about winning," Dungy said. "And not winning it all, but being perceived as having a chance to win. Guys want to play in the Super Bowl. They want to play on Monday Night Football. They want to play in the spotlight and as soon as you have that, you're perceived in a different light."

McKay had to overpay and it wasn't fun. Just ask him about the Alvin Harper fiasco and he says, "I still see the blurs." But McKay also gave Hardy Nickerson a wheelbarrow full of money to lure him from the playoff Steelers, and he was rewarded with five straight Pro Bowls.

"In overpaying for Reggie White, Ron Wolf set the bar for his team and all the free agents out there," McKay said. "That told the league, 'We're a small-market team with not a lot of revenue. . .but we're going to pay and we're going to win."'

Again, Brown will point you to the quarterback. And, to McKay's lament, "In this league, we don't pay enough attention to two years down the road."

The Bengals are paying attention to down the road. Now they want to prove they can get there without blowing it up first.

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