No acrimony, but no deal

8-21-01, 6:55 p.m.

Updated: 8-21-01, 8:00 p.m.

Updated: 8-21-01, 10:15 p.m.

Updated: 8-22-01, 9:35 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

GEORGETOWN, Ky. _ Three days of face-to-face negotiations interspersed with Frisch's cheeseburgers, Papa John's pizza, and Georgetown College macaroni and cheese couldn't end the Justin Smith fast.

Negotiations for the Bengals' first-round pick ended Tuesday at dinnertime when Smith's agent left Bengals' training camp without a deal and indicated the sides are not close enough to discuss the ancillary elements that usually wrap up a deal.

Jim Steiner, who said earlier in the day he wouldn't leave unless asked to vacate the premises, said he left "under my own volition," and headed back to St. Louis.

But Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson, the player picked behind Smith at No. 5, did get done late Tuesday night and could have ramifications on the Smith talks now that Smith is the only healthy player from the draft unsigned. ESPN.com is reporting the Chargers made a major concession when they agreed to Tomlinson triggering his escalators that could max the deal at $38 million by rushing for 1,000 yards in just one of his first three seasons.

The triggers and the guaranteed signing bonus were the big points of contention heading into the Smith meetings. ESPN.com reports Tomlinson is to get a $6 million bonus this year and $4.5 million next year. It's believed the Bengals have offered in the $10.5 million range.

"We just couldn't resolve all the issues and I didn't think it would be productive if I stayed on," Steiner said. "We came close on some issues and not on others.

"I think we're closer than where we were Sunday, but we're not there yet," Steiner said. "We've got some material issues we still have to work through."

Earlier in the day, Steiner said each side has compromised on some issues.

The sides did agree not to display any public acrimony and to talk again Wednesday on the phone, when Smith's holdout hits its 34th day, 18 days before the regular-season opener.

Both sides declined to discuss specifics of what is believed to be an estimated six-year, $18 million deal that has the potential to more than double if Smith achieves certain performance milestones. That appears to be the biggest stumbling block

as the sides try to agree on what he needs to trigger the escalator clauses. The Bengals are also resolved not to guarantee the second portion of the signing bonus.

In the past, the Bengals have said their offer is significantly more than what they gave receiver Peter Warrick in the same fourth slot in last year's draft. Steiner has argued he's looking for the Bengals to get into this year's market.

Troy Blackburn, the Bengals director of business development who negotiated with wife Katie during the three days, said the club is now prepared to go back to the drawing board.

"We've said we'll talk tomorrow over the phone," Troy Blackburn said. "We're going to have to re-visit some things."

Bengals executive vice president Katie Blackburn and her husband spent six hours with Steiner Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium before the summit switched here Monday for another six-hour session, when the Blackburns actually spoke with Smith on the phone for a few minutes.

Steiner arrived here Tuesday at about 9 a.m. and spent the day shuttling between the Blackburns' dorm room and a makeshift office that also serves as the defensive line's meeting room in the college's conference center.

It was a fitting workplace for Steiner, since the Bengals are trying sign their starting right end.

When asked if his client will be signed by the Sept. 9 regular-season opener against New England, Steiner said, "I don't know." Asked if he thinks Smith will play this year, Steiner said, "That's my hope."

While the Bengals privately fear Smith will be of little help this year the longer he holds out,
Steiner said he didn't think the siege would stop Smith from having a good rookie season after coming out of Missouri a year early.

"Justin Smith is a wonderful athlete who is always in shape," Steiner said. "If he played another position like quarterback, running back, receiver, or even offensive line, I think it would be more of an issue.

"He still needs to get signed," Steiner said, "but they're going to be getting a unique guy. Justin is going to be in top physical condition and he's already soaked up a lot of information about the defense at the (May) camps."

Steiner was one of the first and loudest opponents of the so-called Carl Pickens Clause, which is the loyalty language in the standard player contract the Bengals started attaching to the signing bonus last year. That means a part or all of the bonus could be recouped if the clause is violated.

Steiner signed rookie Ron Dugans' contract under protest last year after a four-day holdout against the clause. But the clause was later upheld in a grievance brought by the NFL Players Association and free-agent fullback Lorenzo Neal, a Steiner client, signed the clause when he joined the Bengals back in May. There has been no indication the clause will hold up this deal. But Steiner said as an indication of the number of items still unresolved, the clause hasn't come up yet.

"We have other issues to get through. We're not at that point yet," Steiner said. "That's one of several ancillary issues to get to when closing deals and we're not there yet."

Asked if these were the toughest negotiations of a 16-year career that includes a client list of Neal, Jerry Rice and Elvis Grbac, Steiner called them, "challenging."

"Sure it was worth the trip," Steiner said. "I'm doing whatever I can in the best interests of Justin Smith."

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