Webb mulls future

12-13-01, 9:55 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

If fullback Lorenzo Neal isn't the Bengals' best free-agent acquisition ever on offense not named Boomer Esiason, then it must be left tackle Richmond Webb.

Like Esiason, at age 36, Webb, 34 signed with the Bengals a few years after his Pro Bowl heyday and hasn't disappointed this season in a year that he can stack with his other 11 and know it belongs.

The Bengals would like and need Webb back next season. Webb is fairly confident he'll return for the second of his three-year deal. But he is leaving the door ajar because he turns 35 five days after the season finale and he's at the age when he has had long talks with his body back home in Dallas during the past few offseasons.

"You have to take into consideration how your body feels and how you're playing," Webb said after Thursday's practice. "I'm feeling pretty good so far. There have been a couple of times I've been banged up, but that's normal during the season. Normally I'll just take a little time off, see how I feel a couple of weeks after the season. I'm pretty sure I'll probably come back, but I'll just want to see how I feel."

There is seven Pro Bowls of professional pride here. Offensive line coach Paul Alexander marvels at it every day.

"For a man who has reached the heights he has and has enjoyed the accomplishments he has, it's unbelievable how he's always interested in getting better," Alexander said. "He comes across as if he's more eager to learn than some of the guys who haven't done anything."

Webb's backup is another guy who has to make an off-season decision in 36-year-old John Jackson. If Webb shocked the world and retired, they would probably have to draft a left tackle in the first round instead of a cornerback. They still feel this guy is effective.

After last year's poor season by Rod Jones literally blindsided them at left tackle, Webb has been steel-belted reliable. Although the Bengals have given up some push in the running game on the left side when they lost Jones, they gave Webb $2.6 million this year in bonus and salary to simply keep pass rushers off the quarterback. And except for Tony Brackens' two-sack game in Jacksonville last month, he's been worth every penny.

"He's just been so consistent, that's the best thing you can say about him," Alexander said. "Even when his guy gets pressure on the quarterback, Richmond is still on the guy. There haven't been any blind shots, which is important."

Important? It means everything if Akili Smith gets the nod at quarterback in the Meadowlands Sunday against Jets defensive end John Abraham, the AFC sack leader. A major reason Smith got shell-shocked last season is because Jones

allowed so many blind-side hits that Smith became a staple of the sack-fumble package for your favorite NFL team's highlight film.

A year ago at this time, the Bengals had allowed 41 sacks. This year, it's 22 and Alexander calls Webb, "a major factor in the improvement of our pass protection."

Yes, Webb got nicked by Brackens and Tampa Bay's Simeon Rice got some pressure two weeks ago. But that's been pretty much it.

"He's had some moments this year," Alexander said. "But every left tackle has moments in this league. Take the picture as a whole and he's been solid."

Webb gave up his first two sacks of the season to Brackens in the eighth game and then rebounded to blank a very hot Brackens last Sunday. Brackens had to go inside for his sack.

Abraham is just another in a line of elite rushers Webb has faced this season. He blanked the AFC Central's most feared guys in Tennessee's Jevon Kearse and Baltimore's Michael McCrary, kept the Steelers' AFC-best sack attack off quarterback Jon Kitna in Pittsburgh, and helped the Bengals pitch a sack shutout in the victory over Cleveland.

"I have to go back and look at it," said the always modest Webb when asked to rate his season. "I have to keep it going."

Although Webb played in the Meadowlands at least once a year during his 11 seasons with Miami, this is his first game against Abraham. The 6-4 250-pound Abraham missed 10 games as a rookie last season with an abdominal injury.

Because of Abraham's size, Webb can't really compare him to other guys he's played this year.

"He's a smaller guy," Webb said. "He goes up the field so quickly. You've got to make sure you take those steps back there to keep him in front of you."

Webb came into New Jersey with plenty of Dolphins' teams stalking a playoff spot. Now it's the Jets hunting and if they beat the Bengals, it will be the first time in Webb's career he has played on a losing team.

But he indicated it won't be a factor in his off-season decision.

"It's been tough, but the one thing I've noticed," Webb said, "is guys haven't given up. They haven't thrown in the towel. Guys are still trying to win games. I knew coming into the situation it wasn't going to be an easy situation. I still think we have a lot of talent and we're going to get it turned around."

Which is another reason they want him back.

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