8-14-02, 4:50 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
GEORGETOWN, Ky. _ Jerrold Colton played a gag on his old client over the weekend when he left a message on Boomer Esiason's voice mail that went something like this:
"Just got your deal with the Bengals done, oops, sorry, this message is for Brian," and then hung up.
Which is a lesson that what goes around comes around in the NFL.
The Bengals didn't hold a grudge against Colton for Esiason's defection to the Monday night TV booth at the end of the 1997 season. And Colton didn't seek revenge against the club for not pursuing Esiason as aggressively as he may have wished after he led the Bengals to a 4-1 finish.
So on Tuesday the sides were able to conclude hard but amicable negotiations for middle linebacker Brian Simmons that make him one of the highest paid inside backers in the NFL and keeps him in Cincinnati until he is 33 years old at the end of the 2008 season.
"I was really impressed with the Bengals about how committed they are to keeping their players," Colton said from New Jersey Tuesday night. "They stepped up in a timely fashion and I think sent a message that they care about their players and that they care about winning."
Ironically, since Esiason left five years ago, the Bengals haven't let any significant player leave for free agency except cornerback Ashley Ambrose after the 1998 season. They even gave disgruntled receiver Carl Pickens a mega five-year deal just before the 1999 season.
Offensive captain Willie Anderson, extended in 2000 with what at the time could be looked at as the highest deal ever for an offensive lineman, noticed the boost for the locker room.
"It shows they're committed and it does give you a lift," Anderson said after Tuesday's practice. "They've wrapped up myself, Corey (Dillon), now the quarterback of the defense. Pittsburgh is doing the same thing and I think that's the way we're building, too."
As for the Bengals, executive vice president Katie Blackburn gave the credit to the Simmons' side in talks that appeared to be going nowhere until about 10 days ago.
"You always have to give credit to the agent and the player," Blackburn said. "Both of them wanted to get a deal done and that was the key thing. We're really pleased to have wrapped up a player who means so much to our team."
Blackburn could only smile when asked, "What's next?" She doesn't get much time to savor the deal because clearly Simmons' partner in grime, right outside linebacker, fellow 1998 first-round pick, and defensive captain Takeo Spikes is next on the agenda.
"We'd love to get Takeo done at some time, but there is no timetable," Blackburn said. "The only thing we've done is give ourselves the opportunity for us to keep both. Some way, if we have an opportunity to sign Takeo either this year or next year, we'll try."
Bengals President Mike Brown has said the club can't do a comparable deal under this year's salary cap for Spikes. It's believed that the Simmons' extension takes a $3 million hit out of the 2002 cap,
leaving them only enough to still talk extensions with fullbacks Lorenzo Neal and Nick Williams and maybe another player or two.
But it just wasn't the Simmons' deal that chewed up the room. When Blackburn was negotiating with first-round pick Levi Jones last month, the talks with both Spikes and Simmons were virtually at a standstill.
When the Bengals closed the deal on Jones on the first day of training camp, they opted to put a lot of the money into this year's cap with an eye to Spikes and Simmons.
"By putting Levi's deal into this year, it opened up room for Takeo and Brian in future years," Blackburn said. "At the time, we weren't getting very far with either of them, so we wanted to make sure we had space down the road for them. That's what precluded us from doing both (under this year's cap)."
But something can still get worked out with Spikes later this year or after the season. Spikes has already said he'll negotiate with the club after the season and before free agency opens March 4. Plus, starting Feb. 10, the Bengals can put the transition tag on him if they offer him a one-year deal in the $4.5 million range that allows them to match any offer.
"They'll re-sign Takeo," Anderson predicted. "They want him back and he wants to stay in Cincinnati. They don't want to let him get away."
Then Anderson offered with a smile, but he offered:
"They can give me another bonus (to lower his cap count) and that will give them room to sign Takeo," he said.
The Bengals don't do that sort of thing because they don't like to tie up their future so they can sign free-agents like cornerback Jeff Burris.
Burris signed a three-year deal back in March and this isn't the Bengals he heard about when he was playing in Buffalo and Indianapolis.
"They're doing what has to be done. This is a step forward when you sign a guy like Brian who is important not only to our defense, but the team," Burris said. "I tell people who ask me that I couldn't be in a better situation. We're in position, we just have to take advantage of the opportunity and I think we will."
Neither side would confirm Simmons' numbers, but it's believed to average nearly $4 million per year that includes $6 million this year in salary, roster bonus, and signing bonus. Figure it's about a $1 million salary, which puts him in an elite group.
The Eagles' Jeremiah Trotter was the only linebacker in this past free agency season to get $6 million or more in first-year compensation when he went to the Redskins.
According to figures from various sources, Trotter is the third highest paid inside backer in the NFL behind Junior Seau and Ray Lewis and their average of about $7 million per year. Simmons is in the next tier, led by Zach Thomas, the Dolphins' two-time Pro Bowler, at $4.6 million per year. Then there is Michael Barrow at $4 million per year and Greg Biekert at $3.92 million.
"The Bengals dealt fairly with Brian," Colton said. "Could he have got a better deal on the market next year? You don't know. The numbers work well for both the team and Brian. And Brian would like them to be able to sign Takeo. He knows what he means to the team."
Anderson thinks the contract will finally train the spotlight on one of his team's unknown stars.
"Brian is a superb athlete, but he's not as flashy as some guys around the league and you never hear about him," Anderson said. "But people in the league know about him and I think fans are going to start noticing him now because now his name is out there with the contract."