Sapp story rivets Bengals

3-17-04, 5:30 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Warren Sapp story is a still little surreal in Bengaldom right now. People won't believe it until No. 99 is standing at what would no doubt be the biggest Paul Brown Stadium news conference ever.

(And the jersey is available.)

But the two Bengals who stand to be the biggest beneficiaries of a Sapp signing, fellow defensive tackle John Thornton and former Tampa Bay teammate Nate Webster, enjoyed the possibilities Wednesday.

"I've got a smile from ear-to-ear," said Webster,

the Bengals middle linebacker, of the news his new team is pursuing his old teammate. "I'm not sure of the situation. Warren is sacred about that kind of stuff. He's like a coach on the field and I don't care how old he is. He's still the best defensive tackle in football. Watching him is like watching a basketball game the way he leaves those guys hanging with his moves."

Webster said foes still double team the 31-year-old Hall-of-Famer-to-be, which makes Thornton quite happy.

"When I'm watching a game, the only two tackles I watch are him and La'Roi Glover," Thornton said. "You really learn something from watching a guy like that. I think everybody pretty much patterned their game after him the way he rushes the passer. He'll help any team he goes to because he brings so much attention to himself on and off the field. There was a little shock value to it because it was such a big name, but you also know Coach (Marvin Lewis) is trying to get those impact players."

With Bengals' fans pinching themselves and the club probably fearful that their reported four-year, $16 million deal is now public, not much transpired on the Sapp front Wednesday in Cincinnati. The Bengals are apparently waiting to hear back from the agent for the seven-time Pro Bowler. Drew Rosenhaus had no comment Wednesday, and it looks like the Bengals won't invite Sapp to town unless he's ready to sign. Rosenhaus would like a deal by Friday, and it's just a coincidence that is the day Lewis returns from scouting.

The only thing the Bengals did on the record Wednesday was pull the $628,0000 restricted free agent tag off linebacker Riall Johnson, making him an unrestricted free agent and giving the club more salary-cap room to sign Sapp or Eagles cornerback Bobby Taylor. But word out of Seattle is Taylor is close to a deal with the Seahawks and a reunion with his old head coach in Philadelphia, Ray Rhodes, the club's defensive coordinator.

Webster has been a backup in Tampa Bay the past four season and has seen the outspoken Sapp at work in the Bucs locker room. Webster thinks that blunt style is good for a team.

"No matter what, Warren is going to be Warren and that's good," Webster said. "He doesn't turn away. He doesn't bow down to anybody. He's an honest man. He makes the players around him better. I would love to see him here. We're a team on the rise and he's been there."

The Bengals need a guy like Sapp that can draw the constant double teams so they can free up athletes like Thornton and their linebackers in an effort to bolster a defense that finished 25th in the NFL against the rush last season.

"Look at how great the defenses have been with guys like Warren and (linebacker Derrick Brooks.) "People talk about him as a pass rusher, but he's an all-around guy. He'll stop the run. He'll make the plays behind the line of scrimmage."

Even if the Bengals don't get Sapp, Thornton thinks it's another indication that the Bengals are headed the right way.

"If that's a legit offer, I think it's a great offer," Thornton said. "My agent said the same thing last year when they came out of the box (to give Thornton a $5 million bonus early in free agency). 'They never do that.' Things are changing slowly but surely. I think they have a plan and we're not going to overpay guys. We're trying to be competitive and improve the team."

Sapp is a private, protective guy when it comes to the media. Webster spoke with him briefly, but just wanted to give him space.

"He just said, 'It'd be fun if we were up there,'" Webster said. "It sure would be."

Johnson, 25, played in a career-high 13 games last season and made his first start in the season-finale loss to the Browns. In 24 games in three seasons, Johnson, a sixth-round pick out of Stanford, has been a solid special teams player. He had a big block on Peter Warrick's 68-yard punt return for a touchdown in last season's win over Kansas City.

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