Monday, November 17, 1997
Time for a quarterback change

BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

PITTSBURGH - Bruce Coslet believes in Jeff Blake. Believes he is the best hope of the Cincinnati Bengals. Believes he has earned his stripes, and his starting position. Believes he is better than Boomer Esiason.

And maybe he is right. Maybe Coslet's trained eyes can see what many of us are missing. Maybe he is not playing Blake out of sheer stubbornness, but objective analysis of quantitative quarterbacking. Maybe we are misled by the simplicity of scoreboards.

But isn't it time Coslet tested his faith? Isn't it time that he examined his alternatives in full view of the fans? Isn't it obvious - after Sunday's 20-3 stomping by the Pittsburgh Steelers reduced the Bengals' record to 3-8 - that the status quo could stand a shake-up?

You would think so. You should not hold your breath.

Blake lost three fumbles to the Steelers Sunday, and the Bengals failed to reach the end zone for the first time since 1994. Yet Coslet stuck with his starter throughout Sunday's scrimmage at Three Rivers Stadium, and says he never considered a change. Though the Boomer Bandwagon was rolling last week in Indianapolis, it has now reached a roadblock.

Blake was not entirely to blame for the Bengals' showing Sunday. On a blustery day, against a quality defense, he completed 71 percent of his passes. He finished 15-of-21, for 158 yards, with no interceptions.

''Give the kid a chance,'' Coslet urged reporters. ''He played his ass off today.''

Yet much as Blake has busted his buns, his efforts have been largely unavailing. The Bengals are now 21-31 in his 52 starts since 1994, and ultimately a quarterback must be judged by his success rather than his statistics. Sunday, Blake's best plays produced no touchdowns, and his blunders proved costly.

Looking for a receiver a little too long, Blake took a third-down sack that removed the Bengals from field-goal range in the second quarter. Underthrowing an open receiver, Blake forced Carl Pickens to make a falling reception of what should have been a touchdown pass in the third quarter. Then there were the fumbles. Two of the three may have been the inevitable byproduct of blocking breakdowns, but the Bengals could ill afford any of them.

''The turnovers killed us,'' Blake said. ''Each time, we had a nice drive going. We would get down to the 30 or the 25 (yard line) and then the guy comes through and strips the ball out of my hands . . . When you're getting beat, everything just goes wrong for you.''

Presumably, Esiason would have had more problems against the sturdy Steelers than the compliant Colts. Still, denying him the chance to come to the rescue only refueled the debate that dominated the talk shows last week.

There is nothing more popular in pro football than a backup quarterback unable to demonstrate his shortcomings. Particularly if he has proven his abilities in the past. In his steadfast support of Blake, Coslet makes Esiason seem a martyr. He makes himself look like a coach who would rather go down with the ship than lower a life raft.

It shouldn't be that way. No 3-8 coach should be so firm in his convictions that he refuses to test contrasting theories. No 3-8 quarterback should be so secure or so sensitive that he is beyond benching. No experiment the Bengals conduct now will have any bearing on their playoff prospects for 1997. No lasting harm can come from starting Esiason next Sunday against Jacksonville.

As he said so himself, Boomer is not the future of this franchise. Asked to contribute more than a cameo appearance, he might be exposed as a creaky veteran incapable of sustained stardom. If so, his play would serve to prove Coslet's point and solidify Blake's position. If not - if Esiason could improve his team for a prolonged period - it would tell the Bengals that they probably need another quarterback.

Either way, resolving the Bengals' long-term plans at this position ought to be a higher priority than any game left on this season's schedule.

Bruce Coslet believes in Jeff Blake, and his loyalty is commendable. But pretty soon, the people will want proof.

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