3-7-03, 4:35 p.m.
3-7-03, 6 p.m. Updated:
3-8-03, 3:25 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
By the time Takeo Spikes landed in Atlanta Friday night, the Bengals had landed two veteran defensive starters in moves that unofficially ended his Bengals' career.
Just hours after Spikes signed a Pro Bowl-caliber deal in Buffalo, the Bengals combined the contracts for Dallas linebacker Kevin Hardy and Titans defensive tackle John Thornton for less than the $4.8 million Spikes counts against the Bengals' salary cap as a transition free agent.
That's how much it cost Cincinnati this year for the right to match any offer for Spikes, but he and everybody else figures that won't happen and that he's a Buffalo Bill for the next six years.
"I don't think they will match now, but I don't want to say anything until there's an official announcement that they're signed," Spikes said shortly after arriving back home.
Could it get much better for Spikes? "The Buffalo News," reported in Sunday's editions tthat former Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau plans to join the Bills as the club's assistant head coach. LeBeau has been with Spikes since the Bengals took him in the first round of the '98 draft.
The Bengals did confirm Hardy's four-year contract, but couldn't make Thornton's deal official because his fax machine was on the fritz in Nashville.
"It's like Who Dey is leaving town, the team mascot," said middle linebacker Brian Simmons of Spikes, his good friend and fellow defensive captain. "I've got mixed emotions. I'm happy for him because it's what he wants, but I'm going to miss him."
Ever since Marvin Lewis got the head coaching job nearly two months ago, Spikes, the team's leading tackler and emotional leader since he arrived via the first round in 1998, has lobbied privately and publicly to get out of Cincinnati. Even after he signed what has been reported as the Bills' six-year, $32 million offer sheet late Friday afternoon, he asked Lewis not to match the contract so he could go to Buffalo.
Even though the Bengals got two of the more highly-regarded players on the market, the move didn't go over well in some corners of the locker room.
"It's been a wild day, a day you'd never thought you'd see in Cincinnati," said right tackle Willie Anderson, an offensive captain and Spikes' fellow Auburn product and Atlanta resident.
"I'm not bashing anyone. It's just a bad situation, if we lose Takeo and Lorenzo Neal and there's nothing for the Bengals," Anderson said. "It's sad that Buffalo had to realize he was worth that. Maybe he would have signed for less during the season.
"He could talk to every guy on defense," Anderson said. "He could give them a look or a few words and they knew what he was talking about. He was a leader, and he would talk (to the media) whether we won or lost. He didn't hide and only talk after wins. We're going to need guys who don't want to do it, but who are going to have to stand up and lead."
Neal left last Friday to go to San Diego, but Simmons had to experience the toughest day this Friday. He and Spikes were the Frick and Frack of the NFL. Simmons was picked four spots after him in the 1998 first round and they have played next to each other ever since. Now, it appears Simmons will step outside and replace what used to be his synonym at the right outside linebacker spot.
And, that's hard even though Simmons thinks the outside is more natural for him to play.
"We're getting a good player in Hardy," Simmons said. "But it's hard with Takeo still in my mind. I look forward to playing the outside. I'm excited about it. But at the same, it feels funny moving to a spot where you've know the guy for so long."
Anderson also had trouble seeing Spikes go.
"He's one of our overall leaders on defense," Anderson said. "He's a guy that commanded respect righ away from everybody. I'm just disappointed. I never though it would happen. I just can't understand why they didn't sign him earlier."
Sources say the Bills offer is more than some elements of the blockbuster contract Pro Bowler Keith Brooking signed with Atlanta.
Buffalo is believe to have offered Spikes a six-year deal that gives him more guaranteed money than Brooking's $11.2 million, and a contract that gives him more than Brooking's $17.4 million over the first three years of the deal.
Reached in Buffalo Friday evening before the Bengals' signings, Spikes, seeking his first Pro Bowl berth for a perennial playoff contender, wouldn't comment on the Bengals or what he would do if they matched. But sources said he has reiterated to the club he doesn't want to be in Cincinnati and has asked the team not to match.
"The Bills took very good care of me and my agent (Atlanta-based Todd France)," Spikes said. "It's good to see how another organization works. You can pretty much see it when you meet with key players and the people running the team."
Although the Bills gave Spikes big numbers, he was just as impressed with the "little things." He talked about the nursery the club has for employees that is staffed by certified day-care personnel.
"They just make it easier for you to go out and play football on Sunday," Spikes said.
The Bengals have a week from 4 p.m. this Friiday to decide if thy will match or not. Bills President Tom Donahoe thinks the Bengals will take the entire seven days to match. Asked if the the Bengals signing of Hardy means they won't match, Donahoe said, "I don't think you can ever be so sure. I don't know what it means."
Until they decide yea or nay, Spikes' $4.8 million counts against the Bengals' cap. But they appeared to spend less than that combining the cap number for Thornton and Hardy. Figure about in the $4 million range, which means they saved about $1 million. But, at some point, they have to make the call on Spikes because on Friday they brought in Falcons tight end Reggie Kelly for a visit, a potential starting player. It looks like their cap is now tight enough that they'll have to wait on signing a cornerback. Even though they picked up money under the cap, they came into Friday with about $8 million of cap room, but about $4 million is earmarked for draft picks.