BY GEOFF HOBSON
MOBILE, Ala. _ The Bengals and NFL super agent Leigh Steinberg are on tap again.
And this time it's not over a first-round draft pick (David Klingler, Dan Wilkinson, Ki-Jana Carter, Akili Smith) or a veteran free agent (Neil O'Donnell).
But now the client is arguably the centerpiece of their franchise and the club's marquee player in Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon.
Dillon and Steinberg confirmed Monday they are a team, with their top priority giving Dillon the chance to play on a winner.
"He wants to explore all the options he can," Steinberg said.
Although they didn't rule out re-signing with the Bengals before free agency starts March 2, Steinberg calls Dillon's shot at the open market "unprecedented," and says his client, "is very determined to go through free agency."
Meanwhile, Dillon indicated he's thinking of a cutting-edge contract when he said of Steinberg, "he's known for doing break-through business deals in a classy way."
Steinberg reiterated what Dillon said last week. That the player wasn't aware of the eight-year, $60 million offer his former agents said Dillon turned down from the Bengals Dec. 15.
And after Steinberg and Dillon emerged from their weekend strategy session, they wouldn't say if that $60 million deal with a $12 million bonus would keep Dillon in Cincinnati if the Bengals put the NFL's top running back deal on the table.
But free agency is clearly on their minds.
If Dillon wants to see how aggressively the Bengals pursure other free agents in the effort to bounce back from three seasons at 11-37, he can't sign with the club before March 2.
But Steinberg and Dillon wouldn't comment on what or if the Bengals have to show Dillon anything in the way of coaching hires or signings.
"I'm not going to define it," Steinberg said. "Until March 2, the Bengals are the only team he can talk to and he won't foreclose them. We will be talking to the Bengals in the next week or so. The way to negotiate is not in the newspapers. I notice (Bengals President) Mike Brown hasn't commented on any numbers. I wouldn't be reading any of this as saying the Bengals are out of the picture."
Dillon said the Bengals "are doing some good things," as they head into next season. But he also said, "This isn't a financial issue for me."
Steinberg and the Bengals have a long, rich and rollercoaster history of financial issues dating back to when Steinberg broke into the business in 1975.
There have been the brinkmanship dealings that resulted in training-camp holdouts for rookie franchise quarterbacks Klingler and Smith. There have also been the quick-strike negotiations with the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft that netted rookie record deals for Wilkinson and Carter.
Plus, Steinberg represented free-agent quarterback Neil O'Donnell in July of 1998 when the Bengals inked him to a four-year, $17.2 million contract. But the club saw a $3.7 million signing bonus wasted when they cut him after a disappointing season and opted to choose Smith with the third pick in the next draft.
The Smith negotiations were the most cantankerous and costly between the two since Klingler missed all of 1992 training camp. Smith missed the first 27 practices in 1999 before settling on an incentive-laden contract that would have maxed out to about $56 million for six years.
But the holdout, a toe injury, and this past season's benching have kept Smith at the minimum salary since getting a $10.8 million signing bonus.
Still, Steinberg said there are no hard feelings when it comes to dealing with the club on Dillon. The Bengals have said they plan to designate Dillon a transition free agent if he's not signed before March 2, giving them the right to match any offer.
"It's nothing personal," said Steinberg of the Smith negotiations. "It was just the circumstances. I know it's not personal on our end. Look, both of us negotiate every day."
Steinberg huddled with Dillon this past weekend at his Newport Beach, Calif., office and signed a deal giving Dillon his third representative in a little more than two months.
Steinberg noted Dillon's date of termination of agents David Levine and Jim Sims was Dec. 30 and he found it "curious and strange," that the agents went public with the numbers last week.
Dillon hinted Monday he might go to the NFL Players Association about a grievance against Levine and Sims, "if things keep coming out publicly."
Levine said Monday he had no response.
"To do what they did by giving out numbers like," Steinberg said, "has to be self serving. One, to justify their own negotiating competency, or two, to embarrass Corey. That's an issue between, Corey, the agents, and the NFLPA."
Steinberg said he's been wrapped up in his college recruiting and doesn't have a handle yet on the running back market. But he does know this.
"I don't think there's ever been a player as high profile who has arrived at such a young age on the market," Steinberg said.
"I think it's unprecedented for a guy who has been so prolific in his first four years without getting hurt," he said. "We went over a list of things to explore in free agency. Ranging from short term to long term financially, from family to geography, to endorsements, to a winning team, to the quality of coaching, to the playing surface, and ranked them in order. The top priority was winning."
Dillon, 26, and coming off a 1,435-yard season that included an NFL-record 278 against Denver, said he opted for Steinberg because of his reputation, "as the best. It's as simple as that.
"The big things were off the field," Dillon said. "He focuses on being a role model and giving back
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to the community. And he emphasizes a second career. I don't have much to say except that Leigh is going to explore all our options."
Steinberg says he's not uneasy representing a player who fired Marvin Demoff Nov. 11 before letting go Levine and Sims six weeks later.
Steinberg said he's had clients such as Bruce Smith and Derrick Thomas join him after switching agents and they stayed with him.
"This is more of a long range thing," Steinberg said. "It's not to get hired for just one transaction. It's about role modeling and getting a player where he is at the point where he has matured. It's not just about one deal."