Take-no-blame Blake owes us an explanation


BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Jeff Blake's bravado streak is unbroken. In the darkest hours of his bleakest days, the Cincinnati Bengals' zillionaire quarterback has fewer doubts than debts.

He threw for 166 yards Sunday. No touchdowns. Four sacks. One really awful interception. Several severely misdirected passes. And afterward, Jeff Blake observed: ''We picked them apart all day.''

Huh?

The Denver Broncos defeated the Bengals 14-10, and if anyone was picked apart it was the Cincinnati secondary. Compared to the surgical precision of Denver's John Elway, Jeff Blake was Frank Burns. Strange that he never seems to see it that way.

Blake is a remarkable and often inspiring athlete. What little sunshine has been spread by this football team lately can be traced directly to his right arm. Yet the man has a curious tendency to distance himself from defeat.

''The first half, I played good,'' he said Sunday. ''The second half, there's 11 people on the field. I'm not the only person on the field.''

Divvying up defeat


Technically speaking, this was true. Linemen miss blocks. Receivers drop balls. Ki-Jana Carter ran an incorrect route Sunday. Quarterbacks attract entirely too much blame when things go badly. Still, isn't some of what has been ailing the Bengals this month Blake's doing?

In his first 15 games with the franchise, Blake threw 25 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions. He then signed his big contract and promptly ceased playing to Pro Bowl standards. This is not to suggest Blake has lost motivation or begun cutting corners in preparation - if anything, the opposite is true - but in the 15 games since he gained lifetime security, he has thrown 20 touchdown passes and 20 interceptions.

Granted, his line has been unreliable. The Bengals' running game has ranged from completely rotten to nearly mediocre. Blake's receivers have recently been playing hurt. There are no shortage of available excuses.

But how do you account for a pass that misses its target not by inches but by yards? Not one, but several of them. How do you explain that Jeff Blake completed better than 68 percent of his passes during the preseason, and has since slipped to 52 percent?

Perhaps there is an injury that affects his accuracy.

''No,'' Dave Shula said.

Perhaps he is simply in a slump.

''No,'' Blake said. ''Next question.''

''Nothing's wrong with him (physically),'' said Bruce Coslet, the Bengals offensive coordinator. ''He can play better, but there are a lot of guys on our team that can play better too.

Forcing the run


A lot of it has to do with the Bengals' prolonged problems running the ball. When a ground game grinds to a halt, defenses can also take away the deep passes through soft zone coverage. This forces the quarterback to work the ball up the field in a series of surgical thrusts. This kind of football is not Jeff Blake's forte.

''We've got to keep running the ball like we were today, keep hammering at 'em, make 'em come out of their soft coverages. We've got to make 'em play man (coverage) so we can throw the ball deep and get my (wide) receivers more involved in the game.''

The Bengals ran the ball better Sunday - at least Garrison Hearst did - but the Broncos wouldn't be budged from their grand strategy. Of the 15 passes Blake completed, four were to tight end Tony McGee and five went to running backs. His outside receivers could not have been shadowed much more closely by the CIA.

''Sometimes you just have to go with the flow,'' Blake said.

Another man might admit anxiety, or exasperation, or anger, but Jeff Blake is an enigma. You try to pick him apart, but he won't be penetrated. He is either extremely determined or hopelessly delusional.

''I'm not going to get frustrated about it 'cause I know what I can do,'' Blake said. ''If you get frustrated, the season might as well be over.''

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published Sept. 30, 1996.