Saturday, December 27, 1997
Stubblefield best hope for Bengals

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Dana Stubblefield
History tells you there's not much hope.

It says the San Francisco 49ers will find a way to keep Dana Stubblefield, salary caps notwithstanding.

It says the Cincinnati Bengals can only aspire to drive up the price someone else will pay for the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year.

It says that big-name free agent football stars invariably choose to sign somewhere else.

All that said, it is still worth a shot. Dana Stubblefield could make a huge difference in the Bengals' defense, and Mike Brown is one of the few owners with enough cap room to make it happen. While this formula has failed to persuade marquee players in the past, Stubblefield is a local guy and Brown has never had more incentive to change history.

The Bengals raised their ticket prices again Friday, and they need to do something soon to raise expectations. Convincing Boomer Esiason to come back for another season is Job 1. Showing season-ticket holders a determination to win ought to be Job 1A.

This is where Stubblefield comes in. Or, rather, where he could come in around mid-February.

49ers running out of room

If San Francisco cannot sign Stubblefield to a new contract by then, he becomes an unrestricted free agent. If the Niners do cut a new deal with Stubblefield, the salary cap will be exposed as a sham.

Recent estimates place the 49ers $19 million over next year's projected cap. Though team President Carmen Policy has proven ingenious at circumventing the cap code, Stubblefield may be too much to maneuver through a loophole.

Taylor High School's foremost football player says he will not settle for less than the 49ers spent last August on linemate Bryant Young ($26 million over six years). Given recent results, Stubblefield may well ask for more.

He finished second in the NFL with 15 sacks this season and was named unanimously to the Associated Press All-Pro team. This is the same Dana Stubblefield the 49ers had considered benching for passing downs only last summer.

It is a sad fact of modern sports that players tend to perform at peak efficiency as their contracts expire. Next season's Dana Stubblefield may not be as highly motivated as this one. Still, he's bound to be better than anyone the Bengals have now.

The 49ers picked Stubblefield with their first selection in the 1993 draft, shortly after the Bengals chose John Copeland. In five seasons, Copeland has 19 sacks, less than half of Stubblefield's total of 39.5. (Dan Wilkinson, picked No. 1 in 1995, has 25 sacks in four years.)

Spend money wisely

To keep Copeland or Wilkinson, the Bengals may have to declare one of them a ''transition'' or ''franchise'' player, and pay them at least the average of the top 10 salaries at their position. Surely that kind of money would be better spent on someone like Dana Stubblefield.

''I can't talk about him before Feb. 13,'' Bengals personnel assistant Jim Lippincott said Friday. ''That's when free agency starts.''

Lippincott has studied the potential free agents at each position and presented his rankings to Mike Brown. Given Stubblefield's local roots - and the likely turnover at his position - he probably deserves to be at the top of the Bengals' shopping list. Whether this is enough to get a deal done is doubtful.

''Geography is a factor, but other things have become more important to players,'' Lippincott said. ''The biggest three factors are money, playing time and winning. (Indianapolis cornerback) Carlton Gray is from Forest Park, and he had nothing to do with us last year.''

The Colts are paying Gray $9.7 million over four years. You may remember him as the cornerback Esiason roll-blocked to spring Corey Dillon for a touchdown Nov. 9.

''I remember him being in town for his daughter's baptism, and he wouldn't come see us,'' Lippincott lamented. ''Someone said he drove by, but he didn't stop.''

Who first spoils Christmas spirit - give him a lump of coal.