Missouri Compromise

9-8-01, 3:40 p.m. Update: 9-8-01, 6:40 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

With each side giving in on some points, call this one, "The Missouri Compromise."

Justin Smith said the day after he was drafted that he would tell his agent when he wanted to get a done deal.

With the season approaching and another Bengals' game about to be beamed into Holts Summit, Mo., that turned out to be Saturday. Less than 24 hours before the Bengals open the season against the Patriots at Paul Brown Stadium and 51 days after training camp started.

Indications are the six-year contract calls for $17.25 million in base money, which includes $10.85 million in a bonus split over the first two years, as well as a $1 million salary his rookie year.

"We wish it was done earlier, but we're happy he's here," said Bengals President Mike Brown. "We're focused on the most important thing right now and that's playing our first game."

Smith, the fourth pick in the draft out of Missouri, comes in billed as the best pass rusher in the draft. He arrived, "with no hard feelings," and was relieved to be greeted as just another guy Saturday when it came to locker room ribbing following the Bengals' walk through.

"The guys have been great around here. There hasn't been a bunch of stuff," Smith said. "I would have. If I went through training camp and preseason, I would definitely give you hell.

"I knew I couldn't watch these guys play another game," Smith said. "I just couldn't do it. I need to come in there and start doing what I can do to help the team. That's why I did it."

After some heated talks

last week, the sides didn't speak until agent Jim Steiner called Friday afternoon from his St. Louis office.

"We got over all the major issues yesterday," Steiner said. "There was give and take on both sides. Justin wanted to get in before the season started. That and the fact they had some injuries on the line I think made for a lively conversation."

For the final time, the Bengals husband-wife negotiating team of executive vice president Katie Blackburn and director of business development Troy Blackburn hammered out the key issues with Steiner that have consumed them for the past seven weeks.

The central questions were what on-field milestones trigger the deal to reach a maximum of $40.5 million.

There was give when the Bengals upped their option bonus offer to $3.35 million. There was give when Smith agreed to use 8.5 sacks each year in order to escalate his money. There was give when the Bengals agreed to lower their play-time demands, so the sides settled on somewhere between 75 and 45 percent.

"This finally came together Friday," said Steiner, who left training camp without a deal three weeks ago. "We worked to get to this point."

Steiner said he had an anxious client.

"I told my agent, 'Just get it done. No matter what just get it done,'" Smith said. "I'm not going into the season with this thing. I just don't think it's right. Just get me in and that's what happened. I'll never regret that."

Smith said he could play Sunday, but he won't because the Bengals have put him on the exempt list. He also might not play next week in Tennessee.

The Bengals would have to cut a player on the 53-man roster to make room for him. If he doesn't play, they have a roster exemption that can last two weeks.

If he hadn't signed by Saturday, he was looking at losing $250,000 a week in total compensation as well as take hits in every year of the deal for time lost.

Steiner said a loss of money could be made up, but he also knew negotiations would only get stickier after Sunday because he knew the Bengals would have a tough time giving Smith the same money for time lost.

"I'm happy with it," said Smith of a deal that grew out of discussions that, at times, were contentious.

"It's good enough for me, I'll put it that way," Smith said. "I'm happy with it. No hard feelings on my part at all. I'm just here to play."

The choices flanking Smith at Nos. 3 and 5 had one-time triggers that balloon the last three years of the contract. The Bengals seemed to get what they wanted in that Smith has to hit a mark each year in order to boost his salary, but not inflate the later years so much that they could be forced to cut him.

But, as Steiner said, "It gives him the chance to earn significant money in the first three years of the deal. That's real money as opposed to other deals in which he may or may not get."

Blackburn said, "We think this is a structure that not only works for the club, but for the player. If he makes it, he gets the money now."

Steiner said the $23 million Smith can earn is through a mix of escalators and incentives, starting with getting 8.5 sacks in a season. There is also some money tied to team performance.

The Bengals compromised by upping the option bonus, just as Steiner compromised by dropping the demand for guaranteeing the option bonus.

"It was a hard road," Steiner said. "This grabbed the attention of our company (SFX) for six weeks. I think once you get a deal done, you move on. We can certainly work with the Bengals in the future."

The future is all Smith is thinking about. He dismissed the talk about some harsh words traded between the parties last week and sat with the Blackburns in a pleasant meeting as he signed the deal late Saturday afternoon.

"I didn't hear anything, but that doesn't matter," Steiner said. "It's in the past.You move on and I just can't wait to play."

While Smith waited for the contract to be drawn up, he chalk talked in the office of defensive line coach Tim Krumrie. He bristled at the notion that he has missed so much time that he'll be reduced to a third-down rusher all season.

"Then they don't know what they're talking about Smith said. "All you have to do is know where to go and run, and this is the same defense we ran in college. I'll have that down by the middle of next week."

With Reinard Wilson and Jevon Langford (who both spent time talking to Smith at his locker) set to play Smith's spot at right end Sunday, defensive tackle Oliver Gibson is confident.

"They both have played well. They both had good camps, that's why I'm not worried," said Gibson, who was giving Smith the gentle needle.

Gibson found Smith's moustache a little too 1970sish: "Justin, that has to go," he counseled. But he admitted it wasn't that tough of a room for Smith.

"Day before a game," Gibson said. "If it was a Monday, he'd really be hearing it."

Smith, appreciative of the reception, knows his mates and fans are watching.

"I know I have to perform now," he said.

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