From one 78 to another

4-30-01, 11:10 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Bengals have another Pro Bowl left tackle who wears No. 78.

Except Richmond Webb doesn't expect to wear Anthony Munoz's No. 78 when he lines up for the Bengals. In fact, when Webb arrives at minicamp this weekend, Bengals equipment manager Rob Recker will give him No. 73 after consulting with Webb.

"I wouldn't think it would be available," said Webb Monday, shortly after signing a three-year, $9 million deal with the Bengals.

"Not after what he's done for the Bengals and for the community," Webb said. "I'd be happy with any number they gave me. It's just nice to have some interest and to still be able to suit up in an NFL uniform."

It's like Boomer Esiason said Monday. Munoz is the greatest left tackle of all time, the guy that people like Webb, Jonathan Ogden and Tony Boselli are measured against.

So no one is saying Webb, 34, is Munoz, who retired at 34. But Webb has been the most accomplished left tackle in the game since Munoz left.

In fact, Munoz's No. 78 is one of the reasons Webb switched from No. 56 at Texas A&M to No. 78, when the Dolphins took him in the first round in the 1990 draft.

"He was a guy I always watched, of course," Webb said. "Everybody gets compared to him. He was 'The Man,' when he played."

Munoz says the number thing "is out of my control." But he was as pleased as everyone else in Bengaland when he heard Webb and his seven Pro Bowls had joined the fold.

"He was one of the best during his time," Munoz said.

"I haven't watched him closely lately, but I'm sure he's still an excellent player who is going to help. What he has is that ability to pass block out in space. He made his name playing (Buffalo's) Bruce Smith twice a year, so it was well earned."

Maybe it's more than fitting that Webb should inherit Munoz's position in Cincinnati, where there have been 10 starting left tackles since Munoz retired in 1992 and then went to the Hall of Fame.

Webb's first two Pro Bowls in 1990 and 1991 were Munoz's last two of 11. From 1981-97, the AFC Pro Bowl team had Munoz or Webb or both at left tackle. In fact, it was Munoz's injured shoulder that allowed Webb to start the '90 Pro Bowl as a rookie.

"I didn't spend all that much time with him, but he was a super guy and you could tell that he worked hard," Munoz said.

Bengals quarterback Scott Mitchell did spend a lot of time with Webb during their first four years in the league. The Dolphins drafted Webb in the first round and Mitchell in the fourth round that year, and Mitchell was euphoric Monday night of the impending reunion.

"You win with guys like that," Mitchell said. "If you want to win, those are the guys you get. As a teammate, I couldn't be happier. Especially as a quarterback."

Mitchell remembers that rookie year like it was last year. In Games 2 and 3, Webb held Hall-of-Fame pass rushers Bruce Smith and Lawrence Taylor to a half sack.

"That was the most impressive thing. Being thrown right in there," Mitchell said. "Nobody got near the quarterback. I've seen him lately, too, and it looks like he hasn't lost much."

Of course, that's the big question. How close is the Webb of '01 to the Webb of '91? Even though the Dolphins didn't re-sign him because of the $4 million he took under the salary cap last season, they didn't think he had lost all that much.

Whenever people get around to criticizing Webb, it's always about his run-blocking and never about his pass protection. But after last season, in which Lamar Smith ran up the second-best numbers in franchise history for rushing yards and rushing touchdowns in a new scheme, people like Dolphins offensive line coach Paul Boudreau were impressed.

In '99, Webb was a better run player than Boudreau anticipated and last year, "in our new scheme, he was more physical."

Munoz was forced to retire at 34 because of his failing shoulders. But he thinks Webb can hold up for a few more years. He has missed six starts in 11 seasons, two last year because of a sprained knee and ankle that got rolled on.

"Definitely, if he keeps himself in shape and from what I hear he does," Munoz said. "My legs were fine. I could have kept going. If my shoulders had stayed up with my legs, I think I could have gone two or three more years."

Maybe the most important thing is that Webb feels he can do it.

"I think I've still got some football left in me," he said.

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