3-21-04, 8:35 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
The Bengals apparently did everything they could in their intense, exhaustive negotiations with Warren Sapp. Then they went to bed at midnight Saturday.
Instead of waking up to their biggest free-agent signing ever, the Bengals saw the Raiders literally steal Sapp away in the middle of the night and get him to Oakland by dinnertime for a seven-year, $36.6 million deal.
By the time both the Bengals and Sapp slept on it, it was too late. The Invaders were already off on negotiations that topped the Bengals' four-year package thought to be in the $16 million range. Which is why Sapp agent Drew Rosenhaus titled his autobiography, "A Shark Never Sleeps."
Now, after spending the last week focusing on their two biggest and most expensive pursuits in free agency in Sapp and cornerback Troy Vincent, the Bengals go back to work Monday without either. In both cases, it appeared the Bengals weren't prepared to go past a certain dollar figure for two Pro Bowlers in their early 30s. Sapp is 31, Vincent turns 33 in June, and they also didn't up the ante when 30-year-old cornerback Bobby Taylor neared a deal with Seattle.
With their attention now on Monday's opening of off-season workouts, they probably now turn to safeties in free-agency, with possibly the Dolphins' Brock Marion. The agent for Broncos defensive tackle Daryl Gardener has said his client is interested in a reunion with head coach Marvin Lewis, but he won't be released until June.
Even though he's going into his 10th season, there's no question the Bengals thought Sapp would be an immense help in the locker room and for a run defense that finished 25th in the NFL last year. Still, apparently there was hesitancy about his age, the fact his play and numbers had declined the past two seasons, and that his number on the salary cap would cost them at least a couple of young players and maybe a shot at trying to extend the contracts of younger players such as Rudi Johnson and Peter Warrick.
Although Rosenhaus said Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis lobbied Sapp effectively, the Raiders took advantage of the pause.
"Warren has a lot of respect for Marvin, and he would have been honored to play for him and the Bengals. Marvin and Troy Blackburn did a great job through this trying to get it done," said Rosenhaus of the club's director of business development. "The Bengals simply got outbid. It's not a negative slight on them. I commend the Bengals."
Rosenhaus denied that Sapp never had any interest in Cincinnati and that he was just using them to draw another team into the bidding. In fact, he said when Sapp went to bed Friday night, he fully expected to be headed to Cincinnati.
"There was an opportunity," Rosenhaus said. Rosenhaus has had a history of signing players with the Bengals when no one else did. He was the agent for Louis Oliver, the club's first big name free agent back in 1994, and he brought middle linebacker Nate Webster here two weeks ago, as well as defensive end Duane Clemons last year.
"The offers were similar, but in the end the Raiders' was more lucrative," Rosenhaus said. "The Bengals simply got outbid. . .This wasn't a case where a guy took less money to go elsewhere."
ESPN.com reported the contract is not severely back loaded and will pay Sapp more than $14 million in its first three years and in excess of $19 million the first four years. With ESPN reporting that the Raiders had $2.2 million under the salary cap going into the Sapp signing and his cap number figuring to be beyond $5 million, they're probably going to have to lop about $3 million from their roster, or they came up with a device to make sure Sapp gets his guaranteed $7 million without blowing up the cap. Whatever happens, if the Raiders trade for Bengals running back Corey Dillon, he would probably have to agree to re-doing a deal that gives him $3.3 million this year.
ESPN.com has the Bengals $5.5 million under the cap as of March 17, but that doesn't count nearly $3 million in draft picks and $2 million in quarterback Carson Palmer's anticipated escalators. They don't like to make deals that go past a player's career expectancy, and apparently they didn't want to give Sapp that much over three and four years because of his age and recent play.
The Bengals look to be paying the cap price for signing four defensive starters in free agency last year, when they also took on the mega contract of the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. But no doubt Sapp going to the Raiders is going to inflame the Bengals' critics about the club's inability to lure big-name free agents with creative contracts.
But it may be more than that.
"It takes a different kind of guy to come here," said defensive tackle John Thornton, who came here last year from Tennessee, as he talked of Sapp last week. "You've got to know people are still going to make jokes about the Bengals. We still have to work to get over the hump. I don't think any guy can just come here. You've got to really want to be here. I think you saw that with Troy. It was something he just didn't want to do. No matter how much money they offer somebody, it's still going to take somebody to really say, 'I want to be a Bengal and this is where I want to play.'"
But there's also a school of thought that believes the arrival of Lewis and the Bengals' more aggressive ways at the bargaining table have allowed them to even be so close to signing the big names.
"Things are still going in a good direction," Thornton said. "We're not just going to throw a bunch of money around. We have a plan to do things. I think $4 million a year is a great offer. . .They obviously have a plan to spend on certain guys, and if those guys don't want it, we're not going to go out and overspend. I think we're trying to be competitive and improve the team. No matter who we get, they're going to help us."