Monday, November 10, 1997
Blake's biggest play off field

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Jeff Blake
INDIANAPOLIS - Jeff Blake showed us something Sunday afternoon. Not with his arm, but with his attitude.

The Cincinnati Bengals' quarterback defused a potentially divisive situation by embracing the success of his substitute, Boomer Esiason. Blake might have felt threatened or demeaned. He might have alleged a lack of respect. He might have behaved like a brooding brat, as did David Klingler when the Bengals' quarterback job was last at issue.

But Blake was too glad to act glum. As Esiason rallied the Bengals to a 28-13 victory over the dreadful Indianapolis Colts, Blake strolled the sideline with a huge smile and an outstretched hand. He was genuinely joyous about Esiason's efforts, and evinced no concern with its implications.

It was, arguably, the finest hour Blake has had all season. It was, inarguably, the act of an athlete secure enough to share the spotlight.

''When you become a true man, you put your pride aside,'' Blake said. ''I'm not in this by myself . . . Boomer came in and did a great job. I had fun watching him from the sidelines.''

Bengals coach Bruce Coslet declared that there will be no quarterback controversy; that Blake will start again next week against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Esiason, too, claimed his appearance was but a cameo and that the leading role still belongs to Blake.

Slow to switch

Yet whatever they might say, it had to be clear to all concerned that Blake's position is more tenuous than it was last week. The Bengals were 2-7, and trailed the National Football League's last winless team, 10-7, when Blake left Sunday's game during a dizzy spell midway through the third quarter. Immediately, their prospects improved. Esiason led the Bengals to touchdowns on each of his first three possessions - passing for two of them, and throwing a key block to clear the way for Corey Dillon's 46-yard touchdown run.

In many fields of endeavor, such an effort would deserve, nay, demand an encore. But pro football is funny that way. Coaches who unfailingly allot playing time at other positions based on recent merit are notoriously slow to switch quarterbacks.

Corey Dillon replaced Ki-Jana Carter as the Bengals' featured running back Sunday. David Dunn started ahead of Darnay Scott at wide receiver. But any change at quarterback will be made more subtly, more gradually.

Ostensibly, the job is still Blake's to lose. Pragmatically, he is advised to raise his level of play and soon. Coslet no longer needs an injury to justify sending Esiason into the huddle. He can no longer afford to play Blake out of loyalty alone.

''I'm not worried about that,'' Blake said. ''I'm worried about winning football games. As far as I'm concerned, it doesn't matter. If it takes that for us to keep winning, I couldn't care less.''

Faith in himself

This is a curious attitude in a competitive athlete, praiseworthy and yet perplexing. Certainly it is not what you would expect were Norman Esiason placed in Blake's position. Or nearly any NFL quarterback, for that matter.

How is it that Jeff Blake is more selfless than so many other players at his position?

''Because they've got no faith in themselves,'' he said. ''They've got skepticism about their own game. That's why . . . My pride is not as big as theirs.''

There are other factors. Esiason has been both a friend and mentor to Blake - both in Cincinnati and with the New York Jets - and their relative ages make it unlikely that the Bengals could view Esiason as a long-term solution.

''Jeff is going to be the future of this football team,'' Esiason said.

''The immediate future?'' someone asked.

''Sure he is,'' Esiason said. ''Is a guy allowed to get dinged and not play? Give the guy a break. You're not going to play error-free football your entire career. Everyone goes through it.

''He works hard. He's competitive. I wish everybody on this football team had the heart of that guy. He deserves my respect. Everyone's respect.''

Jeff Blake would much prefer being praised for his deeds rather than his demeanor, but sometimes an athlete contributes to his team simply by not causing problems.

Blake had a chance to be petulant Sunday, and he passed it up. Esiason had an opportunity to make demands, and he demurred.

''You've seen situations where it can become tough,'' said Ken Anderson, the Bengals offensive coordinator. ''The way these guys handled it makes it easier for everybody.''