As passers go, Blake is passe

Friday, August 28, 1998

BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Jeff Blake deserves a fonder farewell. He should leave the Cincinnati Bengals to the sound of trumpets, not a barrage of boos. He has meant too much to the football fans of this town to be cast aside coldly, to be run out of town for refusing to take a pay cut.

But that's the way it looks, and that's the way things typically work in pro football.

A man should not enter the brutality business if he expects sentiment as he exits. He should be pleased so long as he can leave under his own power.

Barring a major development this evening in Atlanta -- a catastrophic injury, perhaps, or a sudden outbreak of amnesia -- Jeff Blake is probably finished here.

He has lost the Bengals' starting quarterback competition to Neil O'Donnell, the backup's job to Paul Justin and likely will be released this weekend in favor of the more cost-efficient Eric Kresser.

It has been a dizzying descent from the Pro Bowl, from the fall of 1994 when Blake was all that stood between Bengals fans and abject apathy.

Yet, four years later, Blake Mania has produced no playoff games. What was once a singular sensation now seems a faded fad. As passers go, Jeff Blake is passe.

This is unfortunate, but no less the fact. Once National Football League coaches realized they could take the deep ball away from Blake and not suffer serious medium-range consequences, he ceased to be a Mad Bomber and became Just Another Guy.

He is too short to see the whole field sometimes, and has often been too stubborn to run when there's an opportunity to throw.

It sometimes seems as if Blake is so concerned with erasing racial stereotypes of black quarterbacks that he plays against his strengths, forcing the ball into places it couldn't possibly go rather than making the percentage play with his legs.

He is easily the best athlete among the Bengals quarterbacks -- owner of the strongest arm and the most nimble feet -- but his strange lapses in judgment suggest a rookie rather than a seven-year veteran. He lost the starting job to O'Donnell, who does nothing spectacular but can be counted on to follow the script.

As the Bengals become more run-oriented, and their offensive line becomes more reliable, their quarterback is judged less as a decathlete and more as a decision-maker. This may not make for as much excitement as the Shake-and-Blake era, but it might mean more victories.

That said, the Bengals should not cut Blake this weekend if the decision is based entirely on economics.

Seasoned quarterbacks with Pro Bowl credentials are a scarce commodity in the NFL, and Blake's $1.95 million salary is hardly onerous in light of the league's new network television contracts. The potential savings of the deal the Bengals have offered Blake -- two years at $1 million annually -- are not enough to justify releasing the player who refuses it.

"I think the perception that's being created is Jeff is going to be cut or not based on whether he takes the (reduced) deal or not," said Jim Lippincott, the Bengals' director of pro - college personnel. "The only reason you cut players is ability. That (salary) is not a factor. If Jeff is one of the best 53, then he should be here."

Lippincott was not prepared to say whether Blake is presently one of those 53 players, reserving judgment until the Falcons game is finished.

Still, he disputed the notion that the Bengals need to slash Blake's salary in order to sign Ashley Ambrose or Carl Pickens, the soon-to-be restricted free agents, to long-term contracts.

This is not a salary cap issue, he said, but a question of merit. If Blake is released, Lippincott indicated, it will be because Eric Kresser beat him out, not because the books needed to be balanced. "Jeff's signing is totally detached from Ashley or Carl," Lippincott said. "We've tried to sign the restricted guys for quite a while. For whatever reason, we didn't get it done."

But Bengals President Mike Brown, whose money Lippincott spends, is not so quick to dismiss the profit motive.

"Normally," he said, "you don't want a third quarterback at an all-out price." Normally, the third quarterback is a kid deemed worthy of developing, a long-term project not likely to be needed. The Bengals' third-string quarterback has not thrown a pass during a regular-season game since 1994. It can be argued that this is one position where a pro football team can and should scrimp.

Yet what happens if the Bengals -- or some other team -- should suffer a serious quarterback injury in September?

Answer: Jeff Blake becomes a commodity.

Maybe the cost of carrying his contract does not outweigh the peace of mind he provides, and the leverage he might mean if some supposed playoff contender suddenly finds itself thin at football's most precious position. Maybe the Bengals' most talented quarterback can still be taught some new tricks.

"There aren't enough quarterbacks to go around," Jim Lippincott said. "We have probably the best depth at quarterback of anybody in the NFL. They're hard to find. You just don't arbitrarily put one on the street."

Not this one, at least.

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

BENGALS PAGE
SULLIVAN ARCHIVE