Testaverde would be only stopgap

Sunday, June 14, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Vinny Testaverde
Vinny Testaverde would fit right in. He would give the Cincinnati Bengals three quarterbacks someone else released, none of whom appears to be The Answer.

He could battle Jeff Blake and Paul Justin for a lukewarm vote of confidence, for the chance to be a caretaker quarterback until someone better comes along. Or he might go to the Seattle Seahawks, and wait for rigor mortis to afflict Warren Moon.

What he won't do is incite a stampede at the ticket windows, or cause a shift in the Super Bowl odds. If the Bengals sign Vinny Testaverde, it will be as a stopgap, not a savior.

That they have offered the recently released Baltimore Raven a two-year deal reflects a prolonged discontent with their quarterback predicament. It says Blake's support is not nearly as firm as Bruce Coslet's public pronouncements. It says the Bengals see more strength in numbers than in any prospective No. 1.

This is a depressing state of affairs for a team now eight years between playoff appearances, and yet it may be the only way to go. When a football team can't find the quality it seeks at quarterback, it should seek quantity.

"I want to give us more depth at that position," Bengals President Mike Brown said. "We found out last year that we could need it, and that could happen again."

Blake shaky as No. 1 QB

Coslet has already anointed Blake his starting quarterback, but Blake's margin for error has obviously eroded since last summer. Boomer Esiason's success late last season underscored some of his shortcomings, and illuminated the possibilities of an offense previously seen as stagnant.

The result is that Blake is more prone to be blamed and more likely to be benched if the Bengals should stumble from the starting gates. Conceiveably, Blake could be carrying a clipboard by late September. Mike Brown might prefer a more orderly succession, but Esiason's sudden retirement has left the franchise in scramble mode. The Bengals acquired Justin to push Blake, and debated drafting Michigan's Brian Griese as a long-range replacement.

Testaverde, 34, is clearly a short-term situation. His aim is to secure a starting job with a contending team, but his bargaining power is not nearly that broad. He was a Pro Bowl quarterback two years ago, but his career is best known for bad judgment and awful interceptions.

"I don't think he's close to finding a port in the storm," said Jim Lippincott, the Bengals director of pro - college personnel. "I think there are teams interested in him being a backup, and a couple interested in him competing for a starting job. But no one's ready to concede their starting job to him."

Testaverde's agent, Michael Azzarelli, says the Bengals have offered his client a front-loaded two-year deal worth $3.7 million. His objection is that the second year of the contract would bind Testaverde to the team if he is a backup and would short-change him should he become a starter.

"We're very serious with Seattle," Azzarelli said. "We're going to go out there and visit . . . Clearly, if Seattle progresses and moves along, there would be nothing to stop them."

He knows Bengals system

All things being equal, Testaverde might prefer to play in Cincinnati. It would allow him to remain in the familiar AFC Central, and would afford him two chances a year to exact revenge on the Ravens. Coslet's system is similar to the one Sam Wyche taught Testaverde in Tampa, and might reduce his transition period.

Yet things are seldom equal in the National Football League, particularly as they pertain to money. Azzarelli says he has found the Seahawks more flexible than the Bengals, more willing to discuss incentive clauses and - or variable years. (Seattle Vice President Randy Mueller declined comment on the negotiations.)

"We really have philosophical differences with the Bengals," Azzarelli said. "They're real stuck on this philosophy that they don't do voidables and they don't do big incentives."

No surprise there. The Bengals can't do a contract without some sticking points. The surprise would be if they were stuck on Testaverde.

Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com