Another sign Bengals still looking

Thursday, November 19, 1998

Paul Justin
Paul Justin did not earn his promotion. It was the product of a process of elimination, not a reward for results.

The Cincinnati Bengals' new starting quarterback is in charge this week because of who he isn't rather than who he is. He isn't Neil O'Donnell. He isn't Jeff Blake. He has the advantage of not being tarnished by too much association with his teammates. He has the disadvantage of not having been tried.

"We should find out what we can do," Bengals President Mike Brown said Wednesday afternoon at Spinney Field. "We looked at Neil for 10 games and we looked at Jeff for a number of seasons. If either one were able to make our offense work better, we wouldn't be looking to see what else might work for us. Until we get someone who can make our offense work, we won't have success."

Abraham Lincoln had this problem with field generals, too. He had to wade through a lot of incompetence before he found Ulysses S. Grant.

O'Donnell's 2-8 tenure was slightly reminiscent of the George McClellan regime - short on mistakes, shorter on daring. Blake is bolder, but erratic, like Fighting Joe Hooker.

Paul Justin? Who knows? But at this stage of another dismal campaign, almost any change is an improvement on inertia. Better that the Bengals experiment on a trial-and-error basis than stand pat for the sake of being stubborn. The search for solutions should be pretty sweeping at this point.

QB makes all difference

Because Mike Brown is ultimately responsible for the fate of his franchise, much of the blame rightly belongs to him. Paul Brown's old methods of operation haven't worked for his son; and Mike Brown has yet to demonstrate the ability to anticipate or adapt to the changing conditions of his industry.

That said, Brown looks a lot better if he has John Elway taking the snap from center. Or Dan Marino. Or Steve Young. Or Norman Julius Esiason. The difference between a top-shelf quarterback and the journeymen who make up most of the National Football League is the difference between vintage wine and sour grapes.

A thousand coaches have said quarterbacks get too much credit in victory and too much blame for defeats, but they usually say it as a means of defusing pressure rather than stating fact. Truth is, until the Bengals can locate a legitimate No. 1 quarterback, they will be hard-pressed to attain mediocrity in the National Football League.

Asked Wednesday to respond to an assertion that the quarterback's role was overrated, Bengals coach Bruce Coslet emphatically disagreed.

"The quarterback position is the premier position in the sport," Coslet said. "They touch the ball every play. They impact every play . . . That's why they get all the commercials."

The best ones are worth their weight in Beanie Babies, but they can be terribly tough to identify. The Bengals have twice taken quarterbacks with their first choice of the NFL draft - Jack Thompson (1979) and David Klingler (1992) - and they lived to lament both selections.

Conversely, the Pittsburgh Steelers once cut Johnny Unitas. The Atlanta Falcons failed to hold on to Brett Favre. Joe Montana was once a third-round draft choice of the San Francisco 49ers. No other position has proved more difficult to project in pro football.

Mostly clipboard carrier

Paul Justin, at 30, is too much of a known quantity for the Bengals to truly believe he's the answer. Except for a single golden Sunday last season against Green Bay, his career has been marked mostly by rejection and neglect.

"When I told him to go warm up (during the Jacksonville game), he had the clipboard and he didn't know who to hand it to," Coslet said.

Next week, Justin could be back in the clipboard business. If he moves the ball Sunday against Baltimore, he will surely get another shot. If not, at least the Bengals will have tested him in battle. They know what they need. They need to know what they've got.

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