Free agents take note of Lewis

1-31-03, 7:40 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

After talking with his new head coach, Willie Anderson, dean of the Bengals, is excited again after all these years.

The hiring of Marvin Lewis has re-energized him. Yes, he will be here for the offseason workouts that start March 24. Yes, he is urging all his teammates to do so. Yes, he told Lewis that the players don't want to run the team, that they want to be led.

"The chemistry on this team isn't as bad as people think who are looking from the outside," Anderson said Thursday night. "We just needed some direction and a general to put fire in the players and coaches. We needed a spark with some new blood from outside the organization and I think Mike Brown has given us that."

Anderson can sense the momentum Lewis has built in his first two weeks on the job among players, fans, and even potential NFL free agents watching with rapt interest with him down in Atlanta. Now he is hoping the club can finish it off by re-signing linebacker Takeo Spikes to a long-term deal.

"The biggest thing we can do now," Anderson said, "is take care of the highest-profile free agent we have. The last thing we need is an ugly holdout for bad public relations. There are players down here who have said that Cincinnati wasn't a good place to go, but now they're wondering after some of the things that have been done with Marvin. They're intrigued by it now."

The first step to re-signing (or not) Spikes comes this week in Lewis' first in-depth discussion about the salary cap with Bengals president Mike Brown and executive vice president Katie Blackburn. Blackburn manages the cap, but Lewis has a large input on how and on whom the money is going to be spent.

After spending six years in Baltimore, he knows plenty about the cap. Enough that he says no decision has been made yet on whether or not to designate Spikes a transition or franchise free agent.

"Your preference is always to sign your own players to keep things in place," Lewis said "If it's possible and it doesn't cut off your arms to save your leg. That's a decision that won't be made until it has to be made."

It's a decision that has to be made by Feb. 20 and involves at least $5 million in cap charges if they decide to tag Spikes. There appears to be little, if no talks, about a long-term deal with his agent. Lewis spent 90 minutes talking to Spikes last week in a meeting in which Spikes left with the impression he would be tagged. Lewis also plans to speak with the club's other free agents.

Asked if the Bengals can afford two big-ticket linebackers, Lewis said, "It's all part of a process. You have to look at it and decide what's the best overall thing for the team.

"Believe it or not, I'm not going to give them a good impression unless we come to terms with them financially," said Lewis with tongue firmly in cheek about getting players to stay. "For a veteran, it's usually opportunity, the chance to be successful (as a team), and then money. Sometimes with a young guy, money might get in the way of what's right for them and a good opportunity."

National reports have put the Bengals at about $10-12 million under the $75 million cap for 2003, but that's a ghost number because it doesn't include about $4 million in draft picks, about another $2 million in offers to restricted and exclusive rights free agents, and a tag on Spikes. Plus, there are other huge questions clouding the real number. For instance, it's considered highly unlikely the Bengals would keep 36-year-old left tackle Richmond Webb at $4 million for '03.

Once free-agency starts March 4, Blackburn is going to provide daily updates on the cap situation and Lewis said, "it will be a collective effort to use the money prudently and we know the landscape changes every time you do something or someone else does something."

Lewis knows the Bengals' history of disdaining contracts with big bonuses that push huge cap counts into future years. But he's not a big fan of that "cash over cap," philosophy, either.

"That's not my decision," said Lewis when asked how much cash over cap he's willing to go. "That's not the way of the NFL anymore. Go from team to team, and that's not the way. Eventually, that cash eats into the cap.

"How much do you do cash over cap? That's up to the owners and management of these teams," Lewis said. "They know that money is basically out on a credit card and at some point that money is going to come due. We've all seen the ramifications of that."

But Lewis argues that even though the Ravens' team he helped win the Super Bowl two years ago ventured into "salary cap hell," last season, they had it right.

"It worked out exactly the way it was planned," Lewis said. "They just didn't plan on two things. (Running back) Jamal Lewis getting hurt (in '01) and the quarterback (Elvis Grbac) quitting on them this year.

"They knew they were going to have to go with some younger players," said Lewis of the cap squeeze. "But they expected Elvis to be at quarterback and that makes them a better team and a year ago they lost Jamal and they had to spend a lot of the overage on trying to replace him with three different guys."

But the Bengals' strategy has yet to be mapped. Lewis wants to get a better hand on personnel and he's not so sure targeting a player right away in free agency is the right way.

"Who is the player and what do you call a big bonus?" Lewis asked. "You don't know until the market develops."

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