Gardener, Bengals eye deal

6-8-04, 6 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Even though his client left Cincinnati without signing a contract, Daryl Gardener's agent said Tuesday he's cautiously optimistic a deal could get done as the sides, "make sure the T's are crossed and the I's are dotted."

Neil Schwartz said the Bengals are the only team in the picture for the former Broncos defensive tackle that many believe is the dominating talent on the defensive line the club has sought since Cincinnati took Dan Wilkinson with the NFL Draft's No. 1 overall pick 10 years ago.

"We've had exclusivity with the Bengals from the start. That's the way Daryl wants it. He wants to play for Coach (Marvin) Lewis," Schwartz said from New York. "He loved the visit. He thinks the facility and the stadium are first rate. He told me when you drive in from the airport and you see the Cincinnati skyline, 'Wow.'"

Schwartz wouldn't comment on speculation that the condition of Gardener's back is a reason why

the deal isn't done yet. Schwartz wouldn't confirm the stories of two months ago, when Cincinnati reportedly reached a four-year, $9.3 million deal with Gardener in anticipation of his June 2 release from Denver.

"Jut because we didn't sign doesn't mean we're mad," Schwartz said. "It's the opposite. We're very pleased. The Bengals are just doing due diligence and we agree with what they're doing. The lines of communication are open and everything is fine."

The 6-6, 310-pound Gardener, 31, had a difficult time in Denver last year, where run-ins with head coach Mike Shanahan short-circuited the seven-year deal for nearly $35 million deal he signed before last season. < p="">But the year before, he had a career year in Washington when Lewis was the Redskins defensive coordinator. Gardener was named a Pro Bowl alternate and the Quarterback Club Redskins Player of the Year during a season he had four sacks along with a career-high 71 tackles.

His play in 2002 wiped away some concern about his back. Gardener underwent back surgeries in 2000 and 2001 during his last two seasons with the Dolphins. In 2000, he suffered a disc herniation and had a fragment removed from his lumbar disc by a spine specialist. He missed six games and returned later in the season, but missed the last eight games of 2001 for laser surgery that removed fragments and scar tissue.

Gardener, a No. 1 pick of the Dolphins in 1996 out of Baylor, would most likely check right into the starting lineup, probably in place of Tony Williams and next to John Thornton. With Gardener playing at such a high level, the Redskins finished fifth in the league in defense and 12th against the run. That's where the Bengals need to beef up after they finished tied for 25th against the run in 2003.

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