BY GEOFF HOBSON
Leigh Steinberg and the Bengals have spoken for the first time about Corey Dillon and his agent told them the Pro Bowl running back wants to stay in Cincinnati on a winner.
The Bengals confirmed executive vice president Katie Blackburn spoke with Steinberg and said Tuesday, "we're ready to negotiate seriously when they are."
Steinberg said, "It was important for us to open the line of communications and it was important for them to hear us say that Corey's been there four years and he's comfortable and the best of all worlds is for him to be in Cincinnati on a winner."
Steinberg told the club Monday, the day the Bengals made Dillon a transition free agent, that his side would like a presentation on how the team plans to reverse a three-year run of 11-37.
"Really, this is everybody's first step in free agency," Steinberg said. "When any player goes into free agency, that's what they want to know from interested teams. How do you get better?"
Steinberg said the Bengals' only offer on the table at the moment is the one-year, $3.66 million tender for transition free agents. Blackburn said the Bengals are willing to talk about a long-term deal before free agency begins March 2, "but everything Corey has indicated he wants to test the market."
The Bengals' blueprint to improve starts with aggressive plans in free agency, based on nearly half the teams being over the league's salary cap.
The Bengals also point to a revamped coaching staff
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that has a new head man who loves to use Dillon's power running game, as well as a new defensive coordinator. Plus, the new offensive coordinator has junked last year's passing game and is looking to build the new playbook off a running game ranked second in the NFL in 2000.
The Bengals also added two assistants during the offseason and now have their biggest coaching staff ever with 14. And Dillon has said he plans to meet with new offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski.
Dillon and Steinberg are keeping a close eye on what the Bengals do in the opening days of free agency, but if it's enough to placate Dillon is a big if. The transition tag gives the Bengals the right to match any offer, but Steinberg thinks the big money will still flow.
"Teams don't like to get matched and usually it has a chilling effect," Steinberg said. "But not in this case. Great players don't get to free agency and this guy is a great player.
"You never see a guy like this on the market," Steinberg said. "Just four years in the league, all 1,000- yard seasons, and he's never been hurt. The money is going to be there. That's not a question. He wants to win."
Dillon also apparently wants about $15 million to sign. His former agents said last month that he turned down an eight-year, $60 million deal with a $12 million bonus, although Dillon said he only knew about the $12 million and then fired the agents.
Steinberg isn't really concerned about that number. Or any others. Yet.
"They told us that was a deal done last year under last year's (salary cap) parameters and that's fine," Steinberg said. "Now it's a different year. The money's not the most important thing with this."
The Bengals made their offers to Dillon last year when they could dump some of the money into the 2000 salary cap. When they couldn't get a deal done with Dillon, they moved on to defensive tackle Oliver Gibson so they could push some of his deal that included a $4 million bonus into the room they had left under the cap before the end of the year.
Now that it's 2001, the Bengals would structure a Dillon deal differently.