Defensive tackle Daryl Gardener and his agent, Neil Schwartz, lined up a four-year, $9.3-million deal with the Cincinnati Bengals when Gardener's former team, the Denver Broncos, gave them permission to talk to other clubs in anticipation of his June release. Those in the Gardener camp, mindful of his disciplinary problems at some of his stops, wanted him to play for Bengals Coach Marvin Lewis, who was the Washington Redskins' defensive coordinator in 2002 when Gardener was the team's player of the year.

But Gardener's iffy back apparently is an impediment to the completion of the deal, although it's not clear whether the obstacles are significant enough to scuttle the agreement.

Gardener underwent a physical for the Bengals a week ago, and the two sides have continued to deliberate since then without being specific in their public comments about the details that must be worked out. As the Bengals wrapped up a minicamp, Lewis told reporters Sunday: "We're very happy with the guys we have here. We never said a certain defensive tackle was arriving. . . . There's no decision to be made. We're fine.''

Gardener's back has been an issue in every set of negotiations in which he has been involved since the Miami Dolphins released him before his signing with the Redskins. It came up in his initial talks with the Redskins, and it came up in his failed negotiations to re-sign with the Redskins after the 2002 season. It came up in his deliberations with the Broncos. Schwartz has been accommodating each time, enabling the team involved to protect itself in the contract in case Gardener is unable to play.

But Lewis has proven to be a careful negotiator. He backed off from a near-agreement with free-agent defensive tackle Warren Sapp, who signed with the Oakland Raiders and said that the Bengals had blinked when the deal was about to be completed. Lewis has only so much money to use to build a team in Cincinnati, and cannot afford to make a signing that he'll regret later. Still, Gardener can be a difference maker if he remains healthy and cooperative, and Lewis has seen that first-hand.


The Dallas Cowboys are unlikely to release or trade wide receiver Antonio Bryant, a source close to the situation said over the weekend.

Bryant's representatives, Peter Schaffer and Lamont Smith, have been working to smooth over Bryant's differences with the team since the receiver's practice-field confrontation with Coach Bill Parcells last week. Bryant got into a heated exchange with Parcells and reportedly threw his jersey into the coach's face at one point. But while he is a strict disciplinarian with little patience for insubordination, Parcells also is a pragmatic coach who will allow the emotions to cool before making a rash decision that might hurt his team.

Bryant is valuable to the Cowboys as a complement to fellow receivers Terry Glenn and Keyshawn Johnson, and the club would not gain much salary-cap space by releasing him. Several teams have contacted the Cowboys since the incident about a possible trade. But none of those clubs is offering much, said the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid Parcells's wrath and added: "It looks like nothing will change and he'll have a chance to stay and try to redeem himself.''


The next few days should be crucial to negotiations between the Tennessee Titans and Eddie George about a reworked contract. George gets married Sunday and has set that as an informal deadline to have the matter resolved. . . . The New England Patriots are close to completing a contract extension with inside linebacker Tedy Bruschi, who is entering the final year of his contract. . . . Dallas reserve running back Erik Bickerstaff tore his Achilles' tendon in practice Friday and likely will miss the season. . . . The pursuit of Tim Couch likely will begin in earnest today. The quarterback's release from the Cleveland Browns became official Friday when the team, the league office and the Players Association completed the paperwork necessary for Couch to drop his grievance against the club. The Green Bay Packers are the favorite to sign Couch, the top overall pick in the 1999 draft, but the quarterback's representatives expect other teams to be involved.