Bengals could run with untested backs


Michael Basnight, Brandon Bennett, Curtis Keaton and Sedrick Shaw are not exactly among the Who's Who of NFL running backs.

They qualify for the "Who's He?" category.

Yet one of them could be destined to be the Cincinnati Bengals' starting running back when the season opens, even though they have combined for one NFL start and 17 games.

That's because Corey Dillon, a restricted free agent involved in a bitter contract with the team, says he'll sit out the first 10 games and return to the final six so he'll get credit for the season and qualify to become an unrestricted free agent next year.

Dillon and his agent, Marvin Demoff, visited Cincinnati last week but couldn't close the gap between the two sides. Dillon wants $5 million a year; the Bengals were offering $3.6 million.

Although Dillon notes he's a Pro Bowl player who rushed for 1,000 yards in each of his first three seasons, the Bengals point out that he's not a breakaway threat. They say he burst through the line 29 times last year with just a safety to beat and didn't score once.

They note he rushed for 360 of his 1,200 yards last year against hapless Cleveland while getting 99 in two games against Tennessee and 101 in two against the Ravens.

The Bengals are taking his threat seriously to sit out the first 10 games, so they decided to play hardball last week. The team had made Dillon, who's entering his fourth year, a tender offer of $1.3 million, which means the Bengals would have gotten first- and third-round picks if a team signed him to an offer sheet in the off-season and Cincinnati didn't match it.

Dillon didn't get an offer, and if a restricted free agent doesn't sign by June 15, his team can slash his salary to a 10 percent raise of last year's figure. The Ravens' Jamie Sharper didn't want to risk that fate, so he reluctantly signed his $1.027 million tender last week just before the deadline.

Dillon didn't sign the tender, so the Bengals reduced their offer to $553,000, a 10 percent raise on his $503,300 salary last week. If he really plays only six games, he'll make less than $200,000 this year.

Meanwhile, the Bengals are looking at the other four backs on their roster, with Bennett, coming off reconstructive knee surgery, lining up as the No. 1 back.

"One guy will emerge, a guy who is going to be the designated starter," running backs coach Jim Anderson said. "A guy who is going to get more carries than the others."

The Bengals seem prepared to find out how much they'll miss Dillon.

Do not enter

New York Giants defensive lineman Michael Strahan said he drove by the Buckhead area of Atlanta the Friday and Saturday nights before the Super Bowl but decided not to stop. One of the places he passed was the club Ray Lewis was in the morning after the game when two men were stabbed to death.

Strahan said an "automatic sensor" went off in his head. "Trouble," he said.

He added, "I drove by those places, I saw the crowds outside and realized it wasn't a place for me. That's what you have to do. I said, 'You know what? It's time for me to go to the hotel room.' I think more guys need to learn how to do that. The trouble most of the time isn't in the club, it's outside the club."

Money games

The Ravens' Jonathan Ogden wants to be the highest-paid offensive lineman in the game, but NFL contracts are so complicated that it's not easy figuring out who is the highest paid.

That's because of the difference between the way contract extensions and new contracts are computed by the league.

For example, Lewis was presumed to be the highest-paid linebacker when he signed a four-year extension worth $6.5 million a year two years ago. But since he played out the final two years of his old contract before the new one kicked in this year, the NFLPA counts it as a $3.7 million average over the life of the entire deal. They have San Diego's Junior Seau ahead of Lewis with a $4.3 million average.

It's a similar situation for offensive linemen. Although Tony Boselli signed a four-year extension last year at $6.5 million a year, it doesn't kick in until 2001, so the NFLPA counts his deal at an average of $4.1 million.

The NFLPA figures Jon Runyan, who signed a new free-agent deal with Philadelphia, is highest paid at an average of $5.1 million.

Ogden, who wants $7 million a year, prefers to use the Boselli deal as a benchmark; the Ravens are offering to top Runyan's deal.

The Ravens are left with a Hobson's choice under the salary cap. If they meet Ogden's demands, it'll hamper them next year when three of their 1997 draft picks who are starting - Sharper, Kim Herring and Jeff Mitchell - become unrestricted free agents and could be hard to keep.

That's life in the salary cap world. Each money decision affects other contracts.

Quick hits

Reggie White turned up at a Green Bay practice last week and said retiring wasn't easy. "I'm not over it yet," he said. But he said he has no plans to return.

The Dolphins will go into training camp with Damon Huard and Jay Fiedler in a dead heat to replace Dan Marino as the starting quarterback.

Joe Montana was conspicuous by his absence at the Steve Young retirement ceremony last week. Although Young says their relationship is fine, it was strained when they battled for the starting job in the late 1980s.


"It's weird. You want to be missed. If they had gone on to the playoffs and the championship, I'd have been like, 'Maybe I'm not so important.' I wish they played better as a team. But at the same time, to hear people say it wasn't the same without me felt good."- Atlanta running back Jamal Anderson, on the Falcons struggling after he went down with a knee injury last year.

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