Paul Justin is a tough guy. Poised under pressure. Impervious to pain. Persistent. Resilient. Fearless. Stubborn. All that intangible stuff a football team seeks in the person who throws its passes.
The Cincinnati Bengals' new quarterback once set Arena Football passing records while playing with his left hand in a cast. Arizona Rattlers coach Danny White adopted a shotgun formation in 1993 as a concession to Justin's condition, but his lingering memory of that season is of a quarterback who played as if oblivious to his own safety.
''I can still picture him scrambling around, getting hit, falling down and still finding a way to complete a pass,'' said White, the former Dallas Cowboys quarterback. ''We all marveled at his ability to make plays when things broke down. That's his strength. It's not always the orthodox way of doing things, but if they put him in and let him go, he'll take the team over.''
In the wake of Boomer Esiason's regrettable retirement, the Bengals presumably belong again to Jeff Blake. But the firm grip Blake had on the starting quarterback's job a year ago is now comparatively flimsy, and was long before the Bengals acquired Justin from Indianapolis.
Blake will go to camp this summer at the top of the depth chart, but with no real assurance he will remain there. Paul Justin has been brought in to battle for the starting job, not to carry a clipboard. Hence his new three-year contract.
''Jeff will have an advantage in (terminology),'' said Jim Lippincott, the Bengals director of pro - college personnel. ''But once it gets to be a level playing field, I don't think the quarterback position will be any different than any other. We're going to have competition at a lot of positions. Nobody promises anything here except an opportunity.''
Blake will have to earn it
Ostensibly, this season is like all those that preceded it. Playing time will ultimately be determined by performance, and the best man will eventually win. The difference this year is that the Bengals' incumbent could be dislodged as early as training camp instead of being allowed to stumble into the regular season.
If Bruce Coslet is resolved to put a stop to the Bengals' sorry Septembers, he will open the season with the strongest lineup at his disposal. If that means Jeff Blake, it will also mean Blake has earned the job.
If it means Paul Justin, the jury's still out.
QUESTION: Is Justin the same guy who stunned Green Bay last November, or the career journeyman who can't seem to hold a job?
ANSWER: Your guess is as good as mine.
Since he was drafted out of Arizona State by the Chicago Bears in 1991, Justin has spent most of his time on the fringes of pro football. He played flag football before he played Arena ball and later spent a season with Frankfurt in the World League. He was out of uniform for two years at one stretch, but refused to believe the NFL was beyond him.
''I was living off of what I made in Chicago,'' he said. ''In Arizona, it doesn't take a lot to live. You just train and stay with the old college habits of having no money . . . I believed in myself that I could play football. I thought I had it and I stuck with it.''
Lippincott tracked Justin
Lippincott keeps tabs on players like Paul Justin on the theory that they sometimes don't realize what it takes to make it until they've been cut a couple of times. Before the trade, Lippincott looked at videotape of every snap Justin took last season. What he saw was progress.
''What I liked is that he stands in the pocket,'' Lippincott said. ''You can see him throw balls accurately with people all around him. Nothing seems to bother him.''
Danny White said Justin's weakness is that he is prone to force the ball into dangerous places when he ought to throw it away. He cautions, however, that this reflects his lack of polish, not a lack of potential.
''As coaches, we're always trying to know what a guy is going to do,'' White said. ''Paul's not a guy you can measure that way. He's still a diamond in the rough.''