QB controversy or calamity?

Sunday, August 9, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Neil O'Donnell is sacked by Hunter Adams as Anthony Brown (75) looks on.
(AP photo)
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Today's mission is a contradiction. It is to find meaning in the meaningless, to see significance in the superfluous, to make a point about the inherently pointless.

We refer, of course, to preseason football.

National Football League exhibitions exists primarily to fleece the public and secondarily to provide coaches clues as to the talent of their team. Normally, these proceedings should be watched only as punishment. But this is not a normal year for the Cincinnati Bengals. Their starting quarterback is as yet unidentified.

The competition between Jeff Blake and Neil O'Donnell continued Saturday night against an objective opponent -- the New York Giants -- and some subjective judgments can now be made.

For instance: Can Paul Justin be any worse?

The two most accomplished quarterbacks on Bruce Coslet's roster were equally ineffective in the Bengals' 24-17 defeat Saturday night. Blake completed three of six passes for 23 yards, and threw two unsettling interceptions. O'Donnell completed only six of 15 passes for 49 yards. The only points either man put on the scoreboard followed a fortuitous fumble recovery (O'Donnell failed to improve on the field position). The Bengals' two touchdowns were produced by Eric Kresser, ostensibly the practice squad quarterback.

Time to perform

On the rigorous road to the Super Bowl, Saturday's statistics mean less than a speed bump. But in the battle to take snaps on Sept. 6, each exhibition game is a crucial audition. Exhibition football might be meaningless to the man in the street, but a coach has no choice but to make decisions based on these dress rehearsals.

"That's part of it," Coslet said. "The No. 1 criteria (in choosing a starter) is how they play in the game. We have to judge on their command of the offense, how they relate to the players on the field, how they do in the two-minute drill. . . . The thing that's hard is giving them equal opportunities."

Blake started Saturday's game with the Bengals' first-line offense. O'Donnell replaced him in the second quarter in the company of second stringers. Despite their unequal opportunities, however, both man managed to move the ball as if it were a boulder.

"We shut down ourselves. . . ." O'Donnell said. "We just didn't execute well."

"We're not together yet as a team," Blake said. "But we shouldn't go into a panic. There's no need to go into a panic."

Yet Justin, unavailable because of a twisted knee, may have improved his position without even making the trip. Should Boomer Esiason want to consider a comeback, his bargaining position would be mighty powerful right now.

"Not very many teams have a settled quarterback situation," Bengals President Mike Brown acknowledged the other day.

Buying insurance

The Bengals acquired O'Donnell and Justin because of Brown's lingering doubt of Blake's ability to take his team to the playoffs. Because O'Donnell's contract is worth more than $17 million over four years, it was assumed his salary would ultimately decide the passing pecking order.

Yet after 1-6 and 1-7 starts the last two seasons, the Bengals can ill-afford to make this a money issue. The first quarterback to show a spark -- assuming one eventually does -- will be difficult to displace. There hasn't been a good job so entirely up for grabs since David O. Selznick was casting Scarlett O'Hara.

Both men merit a longer look. Unhappily, time is short.

"It's hard to give more than one guy enough snaps," Brown acknowledged. "But if we have a problem, we want to have someone to turn to who gives us a reasonable chance and I do think we have that situation."

Time will tell. So far, the Bengals' quarterback controversy looks more like a calamity.

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