BY GEOFF HOBSON
TAMPA, Fla. _ If this is going to be left tackle John Jackson's last season in the NFL, he vows he'll go into it in the best shape of his life.
"That's the goal," said Jackson Thursday from California after agreeing to a two-year contract that means he'll most likely retire with his hometown team.
"I'm happy to be going back to Cincinnati. I'm excited about helping out (head coach) Dick LeBeau and helping out the Bengals."
It was LeBeau who went to management earlier this month and made a strong pitch to re-sign Jackson after the 13-year veteran ended up starting in front of Rod Jones despite being hampered by a hamstring injury the last half of the season.
That got the negotiations on the fast track and resulted in Jackson getting about $900,000 this year in bonus, salary and play-time incentives as he begins a season as the incumbent starter.
He could get as much as $1.7 million over the length of the deal, but the club has an option for 2002. That fits his desire to take the rest of his career on a year-to-year basis.
"I don't know," said Jackson, 36, when asked if his 14th season will be his last. "It depends on how I feel at the end. (The contract) is respectable. It's good in the sense that the Bengals don't owe me anything if I do retire."
Richard Katz, Jackson's Cincinnati-based agent, delivered the Woodward High School product after negotiations with Bengals scout Duke Tobin.
"John gives us a stabilizing influence at a position where we need more consistency if our passing game is going to turn the corner," Tobin said.
Jones struggled in the first year of his three-year, $9 million deal and Jackson came off the bench in his first Bengals' start to help running back Corey Dillon race to a NFL-record 278 yards against Denver Oct. 22.
Then Jackson pulled a hamstring the next week in Cleveland and the injury hampered him the rest of the year. But the Bengals were 3-2 in games he started.
"I'm not sure there will be a clear-cut starter. They will probably both play depending on the circumstances," said Bengals President Mike Brown. "Rod is a strong run blocker, but when he has off days, it gets away from him in pass protection.
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John is a good pass blocker. You just don't know if he can play a full 16 games at this point, but he can go in for stretches and be quite effective. We're glad to have him back."
Jackson won't get into the debate if he should be starting.
"All I'm going to say is I'm a player and I'll go from there," Jackson said. "All I want to do is help us win a lot more games than we won this year."
He did say he didn't expect the hamstring to be a lingering problem.
"I'll be able to play as much as it takes," Jackson said.