Sunday, August 31, 1997
Bengals '97: Breakthrough or breakdown?

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Jeff Blake wants to promote audience participation. He wants to make Sunday afternoons at Cinergy Field more memorable, more interesting, more interactive.

The starting quarterback of the Cincinnati Bengals has been quietly concocting some celebration choreography. He is trying for a new twist on the old touchdown spike, a signature move that becomes synonymous with a Bengals score. Something along the lines of Green Bay's Lambeau Leap, only original.

''You've got to come up with your own thing,'' Blake said the other day. ''And we've been thinking about it. We're trying to get more fan participation, and we've got a couple of things (in development). But we've got to get in the end zone first.''

The difficulty in planning end zone excess in the National Football League is that the best-laid plans sometimes go ka-blooey. Showboating is tastelessly self-indulgent in the best of times, but it becomes utterly senseless when a team is behind as often as the Bengals have been during this decade.

All the cards are in order

Blake's desire to develop a new striped cat strut speaks to his soaring confidence about the Bengals' nascent season. His reluctance to reveal any of the details reflects the fragility of NFL optimism.

From a distance, the Bengals appear to be an ascending power in pro football. After years of stockpiling high draft choices under Dave Shula, they found direction last fall behind Bruce Coslet. The Bengals were 7-2 following Coslet's midseason promotion, and their pivotal players are back.

Defensive end Dan Wilkinson has moved past the awkward stage and may yet arrive at awesome. After two years of rehabilitation and remedial work, running back Ki-Jana Carter has regained some of the luster he had left at Penn State. Blake's favored target, Carl Pickens, is the best in the business (non-Jerry Rice division). There is ample basis to believe.

Yet only two or three elite teams ever have to worry about comfort zone defense in the NFL: Dallas, San Francisco and, presently, the Packers. The rest of the teams make up the Parity Plateau, the vast middle ground where power rankings fluctuate at the turn of an ankle or a positive drug test.

This is the tenuous place the Bengals have occupied for their entire existence. Though the franchise has twice reached the Super Bowl, it has yet to achieve enough consistency to win playoff games in consecutive seasons. More than most teams, the Bengals need everything to break right in order to have a breakthrough year.

An injury away from mediocrity

Some of this is an accident of geography - Cincinnati's distance from the big media markets. Some of this is a function of fiscal policy - the Bengals' preference to buy back stock rather than shore up scouting. Some of this, simply, is the nature of the beast.

By sharing television revenues equally, and rewarding the worst teams with the best prospects and the softest schedules, the NFL has virtually legislated mediocrity. To be much more than average for a prolonged period, a team must postpone profits, spend other teams into submission, or hire and draft brilliantly.

Another alternative is to be so bad for so long that you wind up with some very good draft picks.

This, and the serendipitous signing of Blake, is how the Bengals have gotten better. How much better they can be this fall will depend on the players' health, their motivation, their breaks and their ability to adapt to a new defense. Among other things.

Should Blake emerge as an elite quarterback, the Bengals might reasonably expect a 10-6 season and a place in the playoffs. In a slightly different scenario - a key injury, some poorly timed turnovers - they might be fortunate to match last season's 8-8.

Jeff Blake might want to see how things go before he springs any new dance steps. He should remember the example of Elbert Woods.

If the Ickey Shuffle worked at all, it was only because the Bengals were winning.