BY GEOFF HOBSON
Bengals Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon said Thursday morning he has fired his agents and that he was never aware of the eight-year, $60 million deal that would make him the NFL's richest running back.
Agents David Levine and Jim Sims said Wednesday the Bengals indicated they were willing to give Dillon a $12 million signing bonus and annual salaries giving him an unprecedented $19.5 million in the first three years of his contract if that would finalize a deal for the team's marquee player and NFL record-holder.
The agents believe the deal is the NFL's richest for all non-quarterbacks except Ravens left tackle Jonathan Ogden.
They say the talks stalled when Dillon balked at the bonus, but Dillon said he hasn't talked to the agents in a month.
After seeing the story on ESPN at his mother's home in Seattle, Dillon called bengals.com to say he's unaware of an offer.
"Those are certainly intriguing numbers if they're the right numbers," Dillon said. "But I never heard of them. Nothing personal, but I'm moving in a new direction and have hired a new agent I don't want to name yet. It seems like they're getting a little salty because I'm changing management."
This will be Dillon's third agent since November, when he fired Marvin Demoff and went with the team of Levine-Sims that represents nine other Bengals.
Levine and Sims have a reputation for getting deals done with the Bengals. Of their clients on the club, Levine represented free agent defensive tackle Oliver Gibson as well as 1997 No. 1 pick Reinard Wilson. Like Sims with No. 1 1998 pick Takeo Spikes, Levine didn't go through a holdout.
On Wednesday, Levine said Dillon had nixed the Bengals' offer when Dillon, "couldn't get past the $15 million he wanted up front and rejected it.
"The Bengals clearly stepped up and made a very, a very strong effort to get this done when they were ready to give him nearly $20 million in the first three years," Levine said.
"All the deals with big signing bonuses have minimum salaries in the first two years," Levine said. "But this was real money and that's rare for a running back because of the high rate of injury."
All of which Dillon said hours later is news to him. He's not saying he would sign or not sign the eight-year , $60 million contract that voids to seven years. But he would like to hear from the Bengals.
Tennessee running back Eddie George, with last year's position-record $14 million signing bonus, is generally regarded to be the NFL's highest paid back with about $6.5 million per year. The Colts' Edgerrin James has an incetive-based deal that reaches $7 million only if he maxes out.
"If that's what Mike Brown has on the table, let me know and I'll get my people in touch with him," said Dillon of the Bengals president. "It's a nice number, but we can work on some things. But right now, I'm just sitting here chasing a ghost contract."
Asked if George's $14 million bonus is his magic number, Dillon said, "Maybe."
Brown had no comment on the team's offer, but reiterated Wednesday the club will use the transition tag on Dillon if he's not signed by the time free agency starts March 2.
At any rate, the Bengals seem to be gearing up to match for Dillon, whose club-record 1,435 yards this season included an NFL-best 278 against Denver.
And the club is anxious to get some bang for its buck. They are coming off a 4-12 season in which they used up more of the $62 million salary cap room than two of the four teams playing this Sunday for the chance to go to the Super Bowl.
"We think we've made a very strong, a very attractive offer," Brown said. "We want Corey to be with us. But it appears he doesn't think it's enough. We plan to protect ourselves with the transition tag."
That means if the Bengals offer him a one-year deal for about $4 million per year – the average of the league's top ten highest paid running backs _ they have the right to match any offer. If the Bengals don't match, the team gets Dillon without giving up compensation.
Once Sims and Levine began representing Dillon back in November, they had several face-to-face meetings with Bengals executive vice president Katie Blackburn in Cincinnati. They even met in Nashville, Tenn., last month when the club played the Titans.
Levine said that was about the time the Bengals offered a six-year deal in the $38 million range with a $10 million bonus that was the biggest deal for a running back over six years. But it was shy of George's $14 million bonus.
"That wasn't enough, but we figured once we hit the 10 million mark, we thought we were finally getting into the ballpark where a deal could get done," Sims said.
Even with that deal, Levine said,
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Dillon would have made $17.5 million in the first three years, the same amount as George.
"It's $3 million more than Stephen Davis, $2 million more than Curtis Martin and $1 million more than Marshall Faulk," Levine said of the NFL's other top paid backs. "Even (Tampa Bay receiver) Keyshawn Johnson got only $15.5 million in the first three years."
Although no deal is imminent, Sims and Levine saluted the club's bid.
"We feel the Bengals made a strong, admirable bid to retain Corey's services," Sims said.
Some of the factors that could pinch the running back market are a strong field of free agents, a solid crop of college backs, and the fact that many teams are strapped for cash under the salary cap.
Some of the veteran backs expected to be available are the Vikings' Robert Smith, whose contract prohibits him from becoming a franchise or transitition free agent, as well as one of Denver's trio of 1,000-yard runners, Seattle's Ricky Watters, and San Francisco's Charlie Garner.
Levine and Sims are emphatic in their belief that they were closing in on a blockbuster deal for Dillon with the Bengals.
But Dillon said he's moving on and hopes his new people hear from the Bengals.
"It's 2001," Dillon said. "No more negativity for me."