3-2-02, 2:05 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
INDIANAPOLIS _ After Trent Dilfer suddenly and surprisingly re-signed with Seattle Saturday when the Seahawks announced him as their starter, the Bengals regrouped with free agency's best quarterback now off the market.
Although head coach Dick LeBeau raised the possibility of a trade for Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe, indications were the Bengals had yet to contact New England to discuss a deal as of Saturday afternoon. Elvis Grbac's name also began to emerge as a leading candidate, a day after the Ravens released him when he wouldn't take a pay cut. Also in the mix is the Falcons' Chris Chandler.
Despite several negotiations with the Bengals this weekend, Dilfer and agent Michael Sullivan opted for a four-year deal when the Seahawks gave him a $4 million signing bonus and the starting job heading into training camp that Dilfer so much wanted.
Sullivan said the negotiations with the Bengals cooled as more quarterbacks became available in the last 24 hours.
"Based upon the numbers that were discussed, it seems to me the number of quarterbacks in the market was more important than any single one of them," Sullivan said of his talks with Cincinnati.
Dilfer gets base salaries of $750,000, $750,000, $1.25 million, and $1.25 million in what amounts to a four-year, $8 million deal that can inflate to $18 million. The last three seasons can leap to $3.5 million, $4.5 million and $5.25 million if he has a passing rating of 85 or better and Seattle wins 10 games.
Troy Blackburn, the Bengals' director of business development, said the club wants to stay in line in a tight market in which they want to emerge with more than a quarterback. He pointed to the Bears re-signing Jim Miller for five years at $12 million with $2 million to sign, and the Dolphins giving Jay Fiedler $4 million up front in a five-year, $24.5 million deal.
"You're seeing this year very modest deals compared to last year (for quarterbacks)," Blackburn said. "All we're trying to do is talk to every guy out there and try to see what the going price is to pay these guys and sit down to see based on the price out there for different guys, what the best direction for us."
LeBeau said Grbac's off season in Baltimore this past year hasn't cooled the Bengals' interest.
"There's no reason to think that a guy who has shown growth, growth, growth and is hitting his peak, is not going to continue to be a good, productive quarterback," LeBeau said.
The Bengals very nearly signed Grbac a year ago this week. Baltimore cut him less than a year after he turned down Blackburn's proposal that agent Jim Steiner said included a $12 million signing bonus in a deal that gave him $16 million over his first two years in Cincinnati compared to $13 million in Baltimore. The Ravens gave Grbac $5 million to sign and $6 million in a club option for 2002 that wasn't exercised Friday.
"Clearly he made the decision knowing he was going to the Super Bowl champions and a playoff contender and it didn't work out," said Steiner Friday, who is also here this weekend representing Heisman Trophy winner Eric Crouch.
"The Bengals made a very strong offer and it was a very difficult decision," Steiner said. "When this happened today, the first thing that flashed into my mind was Cincinnati, and I wasn't sure what the reaction would be. But they told me they would think about it, discuss it, and get back to us."
During an ironic Friday, the Bengals also courted Dilfer, the Ravens' Super Bowl quarterback
jilted for Grbac. The Bengals were attracted to Dilfer's big-play 19-1 record as a starter in his last 20 games that goes with 26 touchdown passes that have traveled an average of 31 yards.
The Bengals, a team that has had four different Opening Day quarterbacks in the past four seasons, could be headed in the same direction again.
With the Bengals figuring there is only about $30 million available throughout the NFL, Blackburn isn't looking to use up all the club's free-agent money on a quarterback.
Steiner sees a tight market that won't yield a quick deal. But even though his client took heat for throwing 15 touchdown passes and 18 interceptions, Steiner said Grbac is the same guy who led last year's market.
"He wasn't perfect, but Elvis Grbac wasn't the only factor," Steiner said. "The running back (Jamal Lewis) got hurt and it was just a tough year. They did go to the playoffs and beat Miami, so it wasn't like they went sub-.500."
The Bengals went into Friday trying to be diverse.
"We're not looking to sign just a quarterback," Blackburn said. "We want to add a few players at a variety of positions."
The Bengals also made contact with the agents for cornerbacks Duane Starks and Walt Harris, defensive ends Kenny Mixon and Renaldo Wynn, safety Sam Garnes, and tight end Stephen Alexander.
They have no visits lined up yet for next week, but director of pro/college personnel Jim Lippincott spent the weekend trying to frame a few recruiting trips.
Drew Rosenhaus, Starks' agent, said he's getting heavy interest from an Oakland team anticipating the retirement of Eric Allen and while he's not sure the Bengals are going to be on the same pay scale, he'll keep the team in touch. Mixon, the Dolphins' run stuffer at left end, is also represented by Rosenhaus and has had feelers from Green Bay, Minnesota, and Buffalo.
Mixon wouldn't replace the nine sacks of pass rushing end Reinard Wilson, but he would make the Bengals much younger at a spot currently manned by 34-year-old Vaughn Booker.