Last Homecoming Dance for Spikes?

12-18-02, 5:35 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Not only is Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau possibly preparing for his last game Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium, but so could be their most visible and productive player on defense.

Inside linebacker Takeo Spikes, closing in on his fourth team tackling title in the past five seasons, continues to no comment his impending free-agency status. But he knows what Sunday's game against the Saints means.

"I realize it could be the last dance in PBS," said Spikes before Wednesday's practice. "I'm going to leave it at that. But I'm aware what's going on. I don't think it's going to feel any different. It's a game and you play it."

His NFL soulmate, middle linebacker Brian Simmons, thinks he will be back. That he has to be back.

"Takeo Spikes without Brian Simmons? Brian Simmons without Takeo Spikes?" Simmons asked. "It's not good."

What is going through Spikes' mind? Doubt, sadness or possibly liberation from a team that has gone 18-60 in his five seasons? Spikes, like everyone else, has bristled about the constant losing and the once vocal spokesman has limited his media opportunities as he sorts things out.

"I'm not going to go there now," Spikes said.

More evidence that the Bengals are planning some kind of changes after the season comes in their dealings with potential free agents. Except for some offers extended early

in the season, the club has not been taking to the players whose contracts expire after the year like they normally do. If they make a coaching change, the new coach would be in on the decision whether or not to designate Spikes a transition free agent, which would give the Bengals the right to match any offer, but count about $4 million against the salary cap.

"He's one of the best players on the defense, maybe the best, whatever people want to say," Simmons said. "We need the guy back."

Simmons is where they have to start. They have been synonyms since they were drafted four slots apart in the first round of the 1998 draft, and during this past training camp Simmons signed a six-year extension worth about $3.8 million per year.

The Bengals' front office isn't talking about the future. But when the Bengals signed Simmons, they knew they would have to wait to sign Spikes because they will end up virtually right at the cap after a 2001 season they went over the $71 million figure. Rookie left tackle Levi Jones is expected to hit his incentive (in the $2 million category), which will leave them with less than 500,000 under the cap for '02, according to numbers kept by various sources. That was the pad left for other players to hit incentives.

Before the Jones hit, five teams have more room under the cap for '02 than the Bengals. 2003 is a different animal, but national sources indicate the Bengals could start out in the range of $10-12 million under a cap expected to be in the $74 million range. About $4 million of that is probably ticketed to draft choices and throw in a $4 million designation on Spikes and there isn't a lot of big-time room to maneuver.

But Spikes seems to have done a superb job of getting free agency out of his mind and forgetting all the numbers. Now that he is on the brink of free agency and only under contract until March 1, the pot appears to have grown for him.

The Bengals aren't pleased with a defense that went from No. 9 in the league last year to No. 19 and is the third worst in the NFL against the run. They wondered earlier in the year if Spikes' sore pectoral muscles hampered him, but he has continued to be productive in the eyes of the coaches.

Spikes has just one sack this season after having six last year, but he probably hasn't blitzed as much in a season the Bengals have rarely led, never mind having a double-digit lead often enough to rack up sacks.

Plus, they see a guy playing on a sore foot and a sore ankle on the doorstep of free agency not looking to get out of games and that has greatly impressed them.

"God, I think he's been terrific how he's competed this year," said defensive coordinator Mark Duffner. "I couldn't be happier with his preparation. He's a football player, plain and simple."

Asked if Spikes is having as good a year as he had last year, Duffner said, "I don't have a problem with what he's doing now. He had a couple of more pressures in terms of sacks last year than what he has, but I won't be able to compare it until the end of the year. I think he's having a good year."

Last week, Spikes had a season-high 13 solo tackles against the Jaguars, tying his 13 in the opener against San Diego. With a lead of 141-112 over Simmons in tackles, Spikes is set to join nose tackle Tim Krumrie and linebacker Jim LeClair as the only Bengals to win four team titles.

"I wouldn't dare be selfish and ask him to come back because we need him," said right tackle Willie Anderson, his good friend who lives near him in Atlanta and who signed an extension in 2000.

"I told him, 'You need to sit back and evaluate the situation," Anderson said. "I told him, 'You've got to think about your family, your own situation, and if you're able to win football games. If you think you need to go somewhere else, you need to take that chance.' But you can't do anything until you evaluate it."

Simmons isn't thinking about the possibility that Sunday is the last time they line up next to each other in Cincinnati.

"I'm thinking he'll be back," Simmons said. "It might be wishful thinking, but I want it to be positive thinking."

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