Spikes tagged, unhappy he's it

2-11-3, 4:15 p.m. Updated:
2-11-03, 6:45 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Bengals have made linebacker Takeo Spikes a transition free agent with a one-year offer of $4.8 million, but he doesn't understand why because he is unhappy in Cincinnati.

"The tag is something they're using to keep me there even though I'm not happy and I don't understand it," Spikes said Tuesday from Atlanta.

Head coach Marvin Lewis understands Spikes is frustrated, but the defensive guru sees possibilities of reaching a high level with the tag team of Spikes, the right outside backer, and middle linebacker Brian Simmons moving around in a multiple look that could, at times, put Spikes' strength in the middle and Simmons' speed on the outside.

"I don't see him as a right outside linebacker. I see him as a linebacker," Lewis said of Spikes. "You can do a lot of things with athletes like that. You could line them up in a lot of ways. We're going to play them where they help us best."

But the Bengals and Spikes now seem to be officially at an impasse. He has given no signal that he plans to sign the deal and all appearances are he seeks free agency even though Cincinnati now has secured the right to match any bid with Tuesday's offer.

His agent, Todd France, did say that the club is in "communication and all options are open," when it comes to a long-term deal. But he admitted his client's unhappiness in Cincinnati is "

a piece of the pie that has to be factored in."

Spikes' reaction to the tag that gives the Bengals the right to match any offer is pretty much a rite of February around the NFL. He compared it to being in jail for ESPN.com and told bengals.com, "I wouldn't say I'm a happy player," which follows the script.

Team tags player. Player balks. After the bad words and holdouts, sometimes a long-term deal gets done, such as the Bengals' own Carl Pickens and Corey Dillon in 1999 and 2000, respectively.

And, sometimes, such as in Philadelphia linebacker Jeremiah Trotter last year, team tags, player balks, keeps balking, and coach cuts.

Lewis and Spikes aren't there yet, but clearly Spikes isn't buying into Lewis' new day the way the club had wished, which is maybe why the Bengals gave him the transition tag.

One element of the transition tag that indicates things could change as off-season events unfold is, unlike the franchise tag, the Bengals can take off the transition at any point once free agency starts Feb. 28. The last day he can sign an offer sheet from another team is July 22, the day he becomes exclusive rights of the Bengals.

"That's the advantage of the transition for both sides," Lewis said. "He's got a chance to go out on the market and see what's there and we've got options as well."

Options for the Bengals include trying to reach a long-term deal with Spikes, keep on the tag and trade him, keep the tag on him and hope he comes around, or spend the $4.8 million on a replacement and/or other players, and then trade him, or rescind the tag and let him go.

"I know he's frustrated," Lewis said. "We'll see what happens."

The Bengals and France have had virtually no talks about a long-term deal, which the Bengals seek because it lowers the salary cap number for 2003 from $4.8 million. One of Spikes' parameters could be contained in the six-year extension Simmons, the middle linebacker signed last training camp in what national reports said averaged nearly $4 million per year with about $6 million compensation in the first year.

Spikes may want more, considering he has led the Bengals in tackles four of his five seasons and he is now on the verge of free agency. Plus, Falcons middle linebacker Keith Brooking, taken one pick ahead of Spikes in the first round of the 1998 draft, reportedly can't get a deal done in Atlanta because he is seeking $10-12 million to sign.

But France said there have been few hard numbers on the table.

"There have been more talks about parameters than specific numbers," France said. "But we are taking now and that's good. We'll see where it takes us. A lot of things still have to happen before this is resolved."

For now, the Bengals seem content to put nearly $9 million this year into the middle of their defense. Lewis has spoken several times with him and despite Spikes' boiling frustration over a 19-61 record in the NFL, Lewis has said the Bengals would like him back.

But Lewis indicated that if Spikes is tagged, he would like Spikes to participate in the off-season workouts, minicamps, and training camp, which the club's last two tagged free agents (Pickens in 1999 and Dillon in 2000), didn't do. But that seems unlikely because Spikes would have to sign the one-year offer and take himself off the market.

Asked recently if the club would take the tag off Spikes if he is a no-show this spring, Lewis said, "We're not going to get emotional."

If the Bengals decide not to match an offer for Spikes, they get no compensation because he is a transition free agent, tendered the average of the league's top 10 paid linebackers at $4.8 million. A linebacker tendered the franchise tag of $5.6 million (the average of the top five paid linebackers in the NFL) brings compensation of a first- and a third-round draft choice.

On Tuesday, the Bengals also tendered their restricted free agents one-year deals for what is believed to be about $608,000 if they don't sign a new deal by Feb. 28. If they don't match offers for kicker Neil Rackers, wide receivers Ron Dugans and Danny Farmer, and long snapper/tight end Brad St. Louis, they would receive their corresponding draft selection as compensation. They would get no compensation for losing backup linebacker Armegis Spearman, an undrafted free agent.

All told, with Spikes' $4.8 million number and the offers to the five restricteds, the Bengals now have nearly $8 million less under their '03 cap than they had on Monday.

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