BY GEOFF HOBSON
After his first tour of Paul Brown Stadium Tuesday, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said he's confident the Bengals have the tools to compete in the NFL of the early 21st century.
"It's about finding and retaining players and coaching and training them on a competitive basis," Tagliabue said. "You have to invest in that type of facility and this is a world-class building. Everything is here you'd be looking for."
Tagliabue also told bengals.com during Tuesday's visit:
_It's not a lock Cincinnati, Cleveland and Pittsburgh stay in the same division when the NFL re-aligns in 2002 in what the commissioner expects to be delicate negotiations.
_The league hopes to fine-tune mechanisms in the salary cap and free agency before reaching what he hopes is a four-year extension of the collective bargaining agreement with the players that expires in 2003.
_With the Bengals currently playing in a division in which every team has a new stadium by Opening Day next year, Tagliabue said staying in Cinergy Field would have virtually killed the franchise.
"With so many new stadiums being built in football and baseball , once that process started it was almost essential to remain competitive and go to the type of facilities that the people would respond to positively," Tagliabue said.
Tagliabue toured some of the team offices, a club lounge, a luxury box, the team store, locker room, training room and a team room.
He also stopped into the coaching wing to congratulate Bengals coach Dick LeBeau on his new job.
"The lines and the angles remind me of the new stadium in Tampa," Tagliabue said.
Tagliabue came to town to address The Commerical Club and The Commonwealth Club at Tuesday night's black tie event hosted by Milacron Inc. CEO Dan Meyer.
Earlier in a stadium news conference, Tagliabue ruled out expanding the number of playoff teams and backed Bengals President Mike Brown amid the torrent of criticism in wake of the club's 0-6 start.
Tagliabue pointed to Brown's involvement in the Bengals' two Super Bowl runs in the '80s and said reinventing a philosophy isn't always the answer.
"For me, Mike represents in many ways one of the most potent things about the NFL," Tagliabue said. "Which is an appreciation for tradition, an appreciation for continuity, but a willingness to change.
"Mike was one of the leaders of the (NFL's) management council that helped devise the current (CBA)," Tagliabue said. "He's demonstrated to me over the years that he's got a sense of continuity but a willingness to innovate and change and I think that's what it takes to be successful."
Which division the Bengals would like to succeed in when Houston joins the NFL as the 32nd team in 2002 is another matter. When the owners re-visit the subject later this month, the only given is the league has to be divided into eight four-team divisions by June 1, 2001.
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Tagliabue doesn't know if it will take all-night sessions as it did in the league offices to pull off the last major realignment during the AFL-NFL merger in 1970.
But, "It could be tough," he said. "I don't think we'll have a sense until mid-January where we're headed. You've got to try and balance the geographic relationships without being too parochial."
Later this month, the owners meet to start hammering out the basics of a plan, starting with the names of divisions that could be north, south, east and west. Which means it will be the hot topic at the March meetings in Palm Desert, Calif.
The Bengals want to stay put in a division with Cleveland and Pittsburgh, and maybe add Tennessee or Indianapolis because of geography and rivalries.
But here is just a microcosm of the problems Tagliabue faces all around the league:
Pittsburgh likes the rivalry with Baltimore. The Colts don't want to leave Miami and New York. And Houston feels its roots are with the AFC Central of the '70s and '80s with Cincinnati, Cleveland and Pittsburgh.
"You would think so, but I don't know," said Tagliabue when asked if the Bengals will stay with the Browns and Steelers. "There are people who have ideas that go way beyond the traditional lineups."
Tagliabue indicated two major factors most likely dictating the debate are how deeply the owners are committed to preserving the basic structure of the AFC and NFC, and if the owners will go for splitting evenly the home and visitor gates in division games.
What is clear, said Tagliabue, is there isn't a large appetite to expand the playoffs beyond the dozen teams. But deciding on a seeding system –either before the playoffs or after the first round – could be interesting.
The labor picture appears clearer. Tagliabue said NFL Players Association president Gene Upshaw is interested in pushing the CBA "out on a long-term basis. I would like to see if we can get a four-year extension instead of a two-year extension. If some big surprise (with a new TV contract) comes up, each side might have a chance to be able to re-visit it."
Tagliabue said the CBA doesn't have to be gutted, but it does have to be fine-tuned, particularly making a hard cap harder. Several owners, including Brown, are concerned about the amount of cash clubs are spending on bonuses over the yearly cap figure.
"There are the bonuses paid to players who end up never performing very well," Tagliabue said. "Rookies as well as veterans."
He said the players are also concerned about how the system treats some veterans.
"I talked to Bill Parcells recently and he was saying in many ways the system has created a problem never really anticipated with a veteran player who is toward the end of his career," Tagliabue said. "He has a financial interest to extend his career which corresponds to not as much playing time you would expect out of that player."
Tagliabue would like to see less "churning," of free agents through the league in an effort to restore some continuity. He also says there is some agreement with the players in tying some categories to team performance.
In responding to the several questions regarding Brown's stewardship of the club during the news conference, Tagliabue said a myth has grown around the perceived rapid rise of the St. Louis Rams. Until they won the Super Bowl last year, the Rams were at the bottom of the NFL in the '90s with the Bengals.
"Go back and look at their roster," Tagliabue said. "(Wide receiver) Isaac Bruce was drafted in 1994 and has been on the team since then. Other players like (tackle) Orlando Pace were drafted (No. 1 in 1997) with a clear purpose in mind. What appears to be an overnight turnaround actually is a six-year period of building talent."
Tagliabue noted AFC champion Tennessee and the Bengals each went 7-9 in 1995 and 8-8 1996.
"It doesn't happen overnight. It doesn't happen by waving a magic wand," Tagliabue said. "It happens by getting good players, retaining them, players that complement each other and then trying to get a system that works for an offense and a defense. (The Bengals) have been very successful in earlier times. Two Super Bowls in one decade. . .It's a question of bringing the magic back.
"It's a process of building," Tagliabue said. "It's a process of maybe one lucky trade for Marshall Faulk and whoever takes the credit for identifying Kurt Warner."