Sunday, April 04, 1999

Bengals' braintrust differs on favorite QB




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        There is no draft consensus with the Cincinnati Bengals. There is really no need.

        Opinions are divided at Spinney Field concerning the relative strengths of the 1999 quarterback class. Mike Brown says no two of his experts prefer the same guy. Yet probabilities are that the pick will be made not through a meeting of the minds, but by a process of elimination.

        There are three quarterbacks on everyone's list: Ore gon's strong-armed Akili Smith, Syracuse's nimble Donovan McNabb and Kentucky's precise Tim Couch. There are three teams thinking quarterback at the top of the draft: Cleveland, Philadelphia and Cincinnati. The Bengals choose third.

        “We'll get one if we want one,” Brown said. “And we're likely to want one. ... We'd be happy to have any one of them.”

May get lucky
        You don't always get exactly what you want in the National Football League. But if you try, sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need. Dan Marino was the sixth quarterback selected in the 1983 draft, and this year's class could be comparably deep.

        Besides Smith, McNabb and Couch, Central Florida's Daunte Culpepper, UCLA's Cade McNown and Washing ton's Brock Huard could also rate first-round selections. There's no way of saying with any degree of certainty which of these prospects will make the best pro, and which are better suited to be selling insurance.

        But there's nearly no way to win if you don't get a good one.

        So the Bengals are prepar ing to take the plunge, despite a history of first-round quarterback busts (Jack Thompson, David Klingler) and pressing needs at other positions (you name it). Though the prudent approach might be to trade down for quantity — New Orleans coach Mike Ditka says he'll swap all of his selections to get Texas running back Ricky Williams — Brown is resolved to start grooming a quarterback for his new stadium, and resigned to grabbing whichever one is left on the board on April 17.

        “If you don't have a productive quarterback, you will not have a winning team,” Brown said. “It is one to one. ... If it doesn't work out, they will have something else to pound me about.”

Few sure things
        Typically, drafting quarterbacks is asking for trouble. There are so many factors to consider — size, strength, accuracy, mobility, intelligence, instinct — and few college players provide the whole package. Klingler, for instance, had a terrific arm and was brilliant at breaking down defenses on the chalkboard. Under pressure, however, he was often paralyzed. Behind the Bengals' line, he was under constant pressure.

        The sheer speed of the pro game is a revelation to college players, and a quantum leap for most quarterbacks. Thus the washout rate is higher than at positions where the premium is on quickness and strength. For every Drew Bledsoe, there's a Heath Shuler. For every Troy Aikman, there's an Andre Ware. For every Peyton Manning, there's a Ryan Leaf.

        Jim Lippincott, the Bengals' pro/college personnel director, says there's no player as polished as Manning in this year's crop. His own preference is for Oregon's Smith. He expects, however, to get Kentucky's Couch. Though the Bengals have long expressed concern about the UK quarterback's arm strength — particularly his ability to throw long passes on a line — they like his poise, his experience and his potential impact on ticket sales.

        “He might be the guy who falls in our lap,” Lippincott said. “We all lie to each other this time of year — there's no honor among thieves — but as I call around the league, that's the way it looks.”

        Just in case, Lippincott has invited all three of the quarterbacks to town this week for final inspections. McNabb is Monday. Couch is Tuesday. Smith is Friday.

        “If you ended up with Donovan McNabb, you wouldn't feel sorry for yourself,” Lippincott said. “Or Tim Couch. Who's to say who's going to be the best four years from now? Maybe McNabb is the best of them all. Sometimes, you get surprised.”

        An educated guess is still a guess. Picking a quarterback out of this crop is largely a matter of taste.

        “That's why Baskin Robbins has 31 flavors of ice cream,” Lippincott said.

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

        SULLIVAN ARCHIVE