3-2-01 BY GEOFF HOBSON
Paul Brown Stadium becomes the NFL's Quarterback Club during this first weekend of free agency when the Bengals host four of the top quarterbacks on the market.
The agents for Pro Bowler Elvis Grbac and Denver backup Gus Frerotte said Friday their clients are ticketed to visit head coach Dick LeBeau and his offensive coaches this weekend in separate interviews.
The agent for Washington's Brad Johnson confirmed the Bengals' interest, but not a visit that is believed to be set for Monday. Carl Lopez, the agent for Seattle's Jon Kitna, said his player is in town Tuesday.
"We're trying to improve the 31st passing game in the NFL," said Troy Blackburn, the Bengals director of business development who is negotiating the quarterback deal. "We've got a lot of different ways to go. We have to see what fits."
The Bengals aren't ready to roll out offers just yet as both sides try to gauge a market that heavily favors a handful of teams, which includes the Bengals, that have more than about $5 million to spend under the salary cap. The Ravens reportedly offered the same four-year contracts to Johnson and Grbac.
Scott Mitchell said Friday night from Florida that it's pretty clear now he doesn't fit into the 2001 Bengals.
"I think I'm every bit as as good as those other guys you read off," said Mitchell, who led the Bengals to a 2-2 finish when franchise quarterback Akili Smith got benched.
"It's disappointing because I thought I added a lot to this team. I think I helped this team," Mitchell said. "It just doesn't make sense to bring in a guy as good as me. You're right back where you started last year. There is no progress. If they're looking for a quarterback to improve their passing game, I don't know if that's necessarily the problem. I think they know it's more than just the quarterback."
But some in the organization are unnerved by Mitchell's 50.8 passer's rating, which is lower than Smith's 52.8 from last season, and the club is seeking options.
One is to pay big money to Grbac or Johnson and put the status of an open competition with Smith severely in doubt. Jim Steiner, Grbac's agent, said his $20 million signing bonus counter to the Chiefs during their ugly negotiations doesn't represent what they want. But they clearly want more than the $7.5 million the Chiefs offered.
Another option is pay second-tier money to Frerotte or Kitna and keep the training camp derby alive.
Grbac, who turns 31 in August, threw for the third most yards (4,169) and third most touchdowns in the NFL this season. He spent Friday visiting the Ravens, the only other team besides the Bengals that Steiner says "is more available," than other interested teams.
"It's really an interesting situation for Elvis," said Steiner, who has had tough negotiations with the Bengals. "They've got a pretty damn good running game, a new stadium, a new facility, a defense that's really not bad and can be upgraded by drafting or free agency, and they've got some exciting young receivers.
"Their offensive personnel is fine," Steiner said. "If they just tweaked it a little bit, he could be in a very interesting situation very quickly.''
Steiner even went as far to bring up with Blackburn the possibility that another one of his clients, all-time leading receiver Jerry Rice, will take a long look at any team Grbac joins because of their relationship as teammates in San Francisco.
But as great as Rice has been, it's doubtful the Bengals would make room for a receiver who turns 39 during the season when they need to roll out big money to a pass rusher.
Steiner also defended his actions when he and Grbac decided to leave the Chiefs earlier this week and said Kansas City coach Dick Vermeil had it wrong when
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he questioned their ethics.
Vermeil accused the pair of hiding the fact for weeks that Grbac didn't want to return. Steiner said it wasn't true and after talking to Vermeil about the remarks, he decided they were made in emotional, knee-jerk fashion.
"In a negotiation, even if he felt that way, which he did not," Steiner said, "it would certainly be foolish of us to tell them that, and conclude negotiations without knowing what his market value would be."
Steiner also didn't like the hints he had tampered with Seattle and felt vindicated when the Seahawks traded for the Packers' Matt Hasselbeck while Grbac sat in Baltimore.
Steiner also said that hints from Vermeil that Grbac had a "chemistry," problem in the locker room and that his teammates on the Chiefs questioned his leadership were "garbage."
Johnson, who turns 33 the week the season opens, struggled last season in Washington when his passer's rating dipped 15 points off of '99 to 75.6. But he has thrown 80 career touchdown passes and led two different teams (Washington in '99 and Minnesota in '96) to the playoffs.
The betting money has Johnson reuniting with Ravens head coach Brian Billick, his coordinator in Minnesota. But his agent, Phil Williams, said four teams that include the Bengals are interested
Kitna, 28, is also a '99 playoff quarterback who slipped in 2000. But a reunion with his old Seattle offensive coordinator in Cincinnati, Bob Bratkowski, could revive his career.
Frerotte, 29, has played much of his career as a backup and spent the past two seasons in Detroit and Denver.
But he's got 57 touchdown passes in 52 starts in seven years and has a knack for the big pass, which has been hugely lacking in the Bengals offense.
Frerotte has two touchdown passes of more than 70 yards and last year in place of the injured Brian Griese he averaged 7.6 yards per attempt. That was only behind Oakland's Rich Gannon and the Colts' Peyton Manning in the AFC.
"All Gus wants is a chance to compete for the job and he was interested when he heard the Bengals opened up the competition," said Ralph Cindrich, the agent who also represents former Bengals quarterback Jeff Blake.
"He started asking me some questions I couldn't answer," Cindrich said. "So I told him if he was interested, he should go up and visit and find out. And he will."
Mitchell wouldn't mind asking the Bengals' some questions. Like how he could become the starter, play hurt, win two games in miserable weather, save another, and not be offered much more than the $800,000 from this past season.
"This is really hard. I just didn't think my offseason would be like this," Mitchell said. "I was so vocal about wanting to come back.
"Bringing in those players, they're very clearly going in a different direction," Mitchell said. "It's not exactly a warm and fuzzy reception."
Actually, Mitchell and Ferorotte could very well trade places in Denver and Cincinnati if things develop.