BY GEOFF HOBSON
The Bengals play their last game this season at Paul Brown Stadium Sunday against Jacksonville, and key figures ranging from head coach Dick LeBeau to Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon to quarterback Scott Mitchell don't know if they're making a swan song or an audition.
Conventional wisdom holds the Bengals have to win at least one of their final two games if LeBeau is to have any hope of returning next season. With the Eagles possibly playing Cincinnati for the NFC East title at home next week, you know this is an important one for LeBeau.
"I just wish (Bengals President) Mike Brown could say to the fans, 'Just give Dick one chance for the whole season starting from mini-camp,' " said right tackle Willie Anderson. "But I don't know if Mike can. I would love for them to understand if he did because I think Dick's great."
The Bengals apparently spent some time Friday talking to the agents for Dillon again in an effort to have him at PBS for the next few years.
With no deal seemingly in the works, Brown reiterated what he said Thursday.
He feels Dillon's second Pro Bowl berth makes him a top NFL running back, the Bengals will put the transition tag on him if he becomes a free agent March 2, and he believes the Bengals would then match any offer.
Brown also indicated the Bengals will offer or have offered Dillon a multi-year deal worth, "considerably beyond," the transition tag figure of about $4 million per year. But he wouldn't get into specifics, citing the news blackout on the negotiations.
"I don't apologize for it," said Brown of using the transition tag that allows the Bengals to match. "It's not an illegal act. . .It's within the rules the team can use to its advantage and we should."
The market is pretty clear.
Dillon's fellow AFC Pro Bowl backs, such as starter Edgerrin James and fellow backup Eddie George, make about $7 million and $6 million per year, respectively.
In the NFC, starter Marshall Faulk gets about $4.7 million with backup Robert Smith averaging about $5 million. Dillon's 1,320 yards puts him ahead of George, Curtis Martin ($5.4 million) and Stephen Davis ($5.75 million).
Also in the mix is what to pay for a signing bonus. For instance, George gets what amounts to $14 million within a year or so, and the Bengals don't like those big lump payments.
Brown has indicated Dillon won't be playing his last game at PBS Sunday for the Bengals because he thinks Cincinnati will re-sign him or match.
But other potential free agents who start, such as center Rich Braham, left tackle John Jackson, quarterback Scott Mitchell and defensive end Michael Bankston could be playing their last home game. Left guard Matt O'Dwyer, a starter before breaking his ankle and missing the rest of the year, is also up.
"I'm not even thinking beyond Tony Brackens," said Jackson of the Jaguars right defensive end.
Braham, a Bengals starter at guard or center for the past six seasons, says there's not much he can do.
"I don't even think if it's the last home game or stuff like that," Braham said. "It's just a game we've got to win because we've won so little this year."
Those approached apparently didn't like the opening offers. Brown said the club plans to delve into free agency if it can't lock up those players before March.
"We have talked to almost all of them and told them we'd be interested in signing them and have gotten the signal that they want to see what free agency means for them," Brown said.
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"They have that option," Brown said. "If they choose to do so, we'll do the same. I don't hold it against them, I hope they don't hold it against us. Once free agency starts, it's every man for himself."
Brown said the Bengals are working on "a strong proposal," with Dillon.
"He has to make a decision," Brown said. "The down side for him is that he may not get as much as we have offered, or he could be looking at the transition figure and we'll be considerably beyond that. The down side for us is that we may have to pay more than we originally offered to keep him."
The Bengals upset Dillon last year when they tendered him $1.7 million for this season as a restricted free agent. That meant teams had to give up a first- and third-round draft pick if the Bengals didn't match, which a team almost never does. They didn't for Dillon and he signed a one-year, $3 million deal after a three-week holdout.
But the thinking this upcoming offseason is that contending teams desperately needing a big-time back to take them to the next level – Kansas City and Miami _ could very well offer something to Dillon because there is no compensation for picking up a transition free agent.
The Bengals don't have the franchise player tag to use on Dillon this year, which forces teams to give up two first-rounders if they want him. But Cincinnati gets the tag next season as part of a deal settling a grievance with the NFL Players Association.