Talks at standstill

8-31-01, 10:50 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The agent for Bengals' first-rounder Justin Smith said Friday his client has made two major concessions and still can't get a deal in talks that have become emotional and intense.

And Jim Steiner said the decision on whether Smith sits out the season and re-enters next year's NFL Draft, "is up to the Bengals. That's their decision. Justin wants to play football and has shown it by making these compromises."

With the holdout steaming into its 44th day Saturday, two past the landmark David Klingler stalemate of 1992, the Bengals say the call is up to Smith.

"The Bengals have offered a $10.75 million bonus, $11.75 million first-year compensation, and more than a $40.5 million total package," said Troy Blackburn, the Bengals director of business development. "All of which represents a 26-percent increase over last year's fourth pick. If he wants to play football, we think that's a fair deal."

Dave Smith and his son Justin, the NFL Draft's fourth pick and last unsigned player, have become more involved in the past 48 hours. They have been on some conference calls, where Steiner said the two have been "taken back by some statements made by the Bengals."

Steiner's side is giving up the guaranteed split signing bonus and one-time triggers for the escalators that reward performance in the contracts of third pick Gerard Warren and fifth pick LaDainian Tomlinson.

"Justin is willing to have to earn it twice in different years," Steiner said. "Which means it's twice as difficult

for what No. 3 and No. 5 have to do. We're trying to make a compromise on their behalf. There is a deal on the table that is a total hedge to the Bengals compared to what's going on around that pick.

"Justin would like to see recognition by the Bengals that this deal can be done because he has made two major concessions," Steiner said. "He wants to play."

The Bengals said Friday they don't consider 35-percent play time one year and 45-percent play time another year good enough standards to escalate the contract and are looking to tie most of the escalators to individual achievement.

The clubs says it has one piece tied to post-season appearances by the team, which is similar to one of the terms in Warren's deal at No. 3.

"We're not going to pay him like Reggie White if he plays like Betty White," said Blackburn, who noted the Bengals' starting ends averaged about 75-percent play time last year.

Steiner said Smith's eyes have been opened the past few days of negotiations and, "I think he now realizes how intense these discussions have been."

Blackburn said the negotiations have been passionate and intense only because the subject is so important.

"I think both sides have probably said things they wouldn't have said in calmer moments," Blackburn said. "But that's part and parcel of negotiations."

MORE CD STATS: Only two players will make more money than Bengals Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon this year in the NFL: Denver quarterback Brian Griese and 49ers defensive tackle Bryant Young.

And according to ESPN.com, not by much. Counting signing bonus, salary and roster, reporting and workout bonuses, Dillon takes home $12.9 million while Griese rakes in $13.05 million and Young $12.97 million. Dillon's breakdown is $10.5 million to sign his five-year deal back in May with a $2.3 million salary this year and a $100,000 workout bonus.

INJURY UPDATE: As feared, a MRI showed backup linebacker Armegis Spearman is out for the season with a completely torn pectoral muscle. Spearman a free-agent from Mississippi, was the only undrafted player on the 2000 " Football News," All-Rookie team.

Trainer Paul Sparling said Friday that Spearman is set for surgery Tuesday and needs three to four months to recover. He had been backing up Takeo Spikes on the right outside. . .

Sparling said quarterback Akili Smith is ready to start practicing for the first time since he took a hit on his throwing shoulder Aug. 10 and that the Bengals will gradually work him back into practice when the club resumes workouts Sunday after Saturday's day off. Sparling said the pain of mild tendinitis has "markedly subsided." . . .

Wide receiver Danny Farmer surfaced on crutches with a hyperextended knee Friday and is questionable for the opener. But Farmer says he should be ready in a few days and Sparling said he should be OK in a week or two after a MRI showed no damage.

HARRIS TO STICK? Rookie punter Nick Harris, in town for less than 24 hours, impressed the brass enough in Thursday's game that he's getting strong consideration in unseating Daniel Pope.

"He did a good job. Consider what he had to deal with," said Jim Lippincott, the Bengals director of pro/college personnel.

"He got here late Wednesday night (from Denver). He doesn't know

anybody. He doesn't know us. He gets off some kicks despite some bad snaps. And he was real impressive in pregame."

All of which doesn't seem to impress Pope, suddenly competing with a fourth-round pick of the Broncos, the first punter drafted, and the most prolific punter in NCAA Division I history.

Pope punted twice Thursday when the Bengals were backed up for a 43-yard average. Harris hit four for 40.5. Each put one inside the 20.

"The worst thing about it is I get the job and two days later they bring in another guy and now I have to go into New England ready to go if I'm going to be here. Now I don't know if I'm going to be here," said Pope, wishing he had punted more than 10 times in the preseason.

"I'm not mad," Pope said. "It's still preseason and it's business. They're going to look at who they want to look at. That's the way this business is. . .(but) I don't even know if I'm the starting punter going into opening week. That's the frustrating part."

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