Justin deserves another start

Monday, November 23, 1998

Paul Justin is a concussion waiting to happen.
(Michael E. Keating photo)

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Paul Justin had that old finals week feeling. He had too much to learn, and too little time to study.

The Cincinnati Bengals' new No. 1 quarterback is accustomed to cramming, to figuring things out on the fly, to pro football as improvisational theater. It is not always conducive to peak performance, but it does reveal something of a man's resourcefulness.

It can tell you if a guy is worth grooming.

If Justin didn't win a job in the Bengals' 20-13 loss to Baltimore Sunday, he certainly earned an encore. He moved the ball more briskly than Neil O'Donnell had been doing, and he did it almost entirely on instinct. He cracked open a window of optimistic opportunity in a decade of dark despair.

He was good enough to believe things might get better, which at this point of this season is about as much hope as the Bengals can handle. Paul Justin is still more of a curiosity than a cure, but uncertainty is an improvement on more of the same.

"He's a gamer," Bengals coach Bruce Coslet said. "He finds ways to get things done in the game. We expect him to get a few more things done next week in the game."

Justin will start next week against Jacksonville though he threw no touchdown passes and two interceptions against the National Football League's 22nd-ranked pass defense. He will start a second time despite a tenuous grasp on a thick playbook and a tendency to react before he has made an adequate read of the defense. He will start because Coslet's other expensive quarterbacks have been tried and found wanting, because all the Bengals' alternatives should be tested before next spring's draft.

At 30 years old, the career journeyman may never get another chance this good. What he might make of it is still too soon to say.

Must 'play my game'

"I think if there was any pressure, it was the pressure of the system - whether I could run it and execute it," Justin said. "I've just got to play my game, play it that day, and I can't worry about what decisions are going to be made down the road. Today, we took a loss, but offensively, I think we played hard and better than we have in the past."

Justin completed 18-of-32 attempts for 202 yards against the Ravens. His two interceptions equalled O'Donnell's total for the entire season, but his willingness to fling the ball downfield was a welcome change from O'Donnell's lateral lobs to his running backs. (His willingness to take a hit, however, is troubling. Paul Justin is a concussion waiting to happen.)

Two of Justin's passes that should have been caught were muffed - a sideline toss that went through the flypaper fingers of Carl Pickens, a deep ball dropped by tight end Tony McGee. Another key target, wide receiver Darnay Scott, was unavailable because of injury.

"He did some good things and he made some mistakes," Coslet said of Justin. "That's what you expect. He had 82 practice snaps this week out of 105 . . . He had three or four practice snaps in the bye week. His last (significant) practice snaps with what we do offensively were in training camp. Early in training camp."

Learning the playbook

Asked to assess Justin's grasp of his offense, Coslet held his arms four feet apart to represent the breadth of his playbook. Then he held his index finger and his thumb perhaps four inches apart to suggest the extent of Justin's understanding.

"You get to the point where you're just working on your physical talent," Justin said. "But I've been playing football for a long time. Stuff like that (second) interception shouldn't have happened."

Justin rationalized his first interception as a freak deflection. The second, he said, was a bad read that revealed his rust.

One of the hardest adjustments an out-of-sync quarterback must make is the difference between the pace of plays in practice and the speed of game action. It is the difference between driving home on the highway and taking the green flag at the Indy 500. It takes time.

"That will come," Justin said. "Didn't the offense look better?"

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