Now, it's O'Donnell's job to lose

Tuesday, August 18, 1998

BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Bruce Coslet is right. There is no quarterback controversy in Cincinnati. There is only a competition that will resolve itself.

Debate is pointless. Analysis is wasted breath. All that matters between Jeff Blake and Neil O'Donnell is which man best moves the ball and puts points on the board.

Nothing else matters. Everything else is superfluous. Football coaches, intent on making the obvious obscure, can talk about command of the offense and presence in the huddle and leadership in the locker room and every bit of it is eyewash.

What matters is performance. What matters is production. What matters is that Jeff Blake's preseason passing rating is 11.18, which is only slightly better than the square root of Steve Young's single-season National Football League record.

If Neil O'Donnell did not win the starting assignment in Monday's 30-27 loss to Indianapolis, it should now be his job to lose. O'Donnell attempted five passes against the Colts, and completed all of them. He played two offensive possessions and produced two touchdowns. He showed marked improvement over his dreary debut against the New York Giants.

Blake pressing

Blake, meanwhile, is backsliding. He threw another egregious interception Monday, forcing the ball into thick Colt coverage on a broken play, and did not complete a pass until the third quarter, on his eighth attempt, when Indianapolis' defense consisted entirely of second-stringers and the soon-to-be unemployed.

"He's got to assess where he's at right now," Coslet said. "I think he's doing the same damn thing he did last year. He's pressing. He knows he's in a competition and he's trying to make plays instead of taking what the defense gives him. He's got to learn to get himself out of that."

Blake has completed only seven of 19 preseason passes with three interceptions, and while some of his misses have been the result of blown assignments and improper pass patterns, others indicate appalling lapses in judgment. O'Donnell has certainly not been spectacular, but he's a surer thing at this stage -- a quarterback who knows and accepts his limitations.

"He is getting better and better," Coslet said. "I knew it was going to take him a lot longer (to adjust to the offense), but he's improving. He's had 24 practices."

Blake has had most of the advantages in this competition. Though he finished last season on the bench behind Boomer Esiason, he returned this summer as the Bengals' titular starter. Blake knows the Bengals' playbook and personnel in greater depth than does O'Donnell, and is a personal favorite of and protege of Coslet's.

But there is no longer any room for sentiment on the Cincinnati sideline. Coslet's stubborn support of Blake last season conceivably could have cost the Bengals a playoff spot. No matter how benevolent his boss, no NFL coach can risk making this same mistake twice.

Barring an injury, or a dramatic reversal of fortunes in the two remaining preseason games, O'Donnell will start the season against the Tennessee Oilers. If there is to be any quarterback controversy with the Bengals this month, it will be whether Blake should be demoted to third team, behind Paul Justin.

Coslet did not commit himself Monday. He calculated the game's weight on his ultimate decision as "one-fourth of the preseason, like last week." Asked if anyone had emerged as the clear leader at quarterback, Coslet said "No."

Politically, this was the right thing to say. No coach wants to close the door on a head-to-head competition until deadlines force his hand. Yet, as a practical matter, Coslet must quickly choose one passer to get the bulk of the snaps in preseason games and in practice.

Sharing is a swell concept for five-year-olds, but it doesn't work so well with veteran quarterbacks. Pretty soon, Bruce Coslet is going to have to make a choice. Probably, his mind is already made up.

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

SULLIVAN ARCHIVE