Monday, December 06, 1999

Blake: What might have been, not what will be




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Jeff Blake has finally emerged as a triple-threat. In applying adjectives to the Cincinnati Bengals' quarterback, it is now necessary to employ all three degrees of comparison.

        He is the best the Bengals have, better than most and as good as gone.

        Much as Sunday's 44-30 shootout victory thrilled Bengals fans accustomed to being tormented by the San Francisco 49ers, the win was almost as melancholy as it was momentous. It was probably Blake's next-to-last home game in Cincinnati, and the way he played can only make the likely parting more painful.

        He threw accurately, chose wisely and completed 21 of 30 pass attempts for 334 yards and four touchdowns. He did exactly what he's always said he could do with a decent running game and a defense that didn't always leave him trailing by two touchdowns. It was just one game, and the 49ers are just dreadful now, but it was impossible to watch Blake on Sunday and not wonder what he might have done under different circumstances.

        “It kind of got emotional for me after the game because of all the adversity that I have been through,” Blake said after slipping out of his shoulder pads and into a three-piece suit. “Coach (Bruce Coslet) gave me one more opportunity to play football. He saw fit that I had the chance. Things have happened almost miraculously to keep me on the field. I don't know how, but I know why. God has a purpose for me.”

No future here
        Jeff Blake's precise role in the deity's grand design has yet to be revealed, but his future here is apparently finite. Blake's contract expires at the end of the season, and the Bengals' investment in rookie Akili Smith probably precludes serious negotiations about a new deal for their old quarterback.

        Coslet raised the possibility that the Bengals could designate Blake as their "franchise,” player, and thereby lock him up during Smith's development. But Bengals owner Mike Brown has never been enamored of Blake as a starter, and is unlikely to pay him top dollar to stand on the sideline.

        “Everybody knows Jeff is the quarterback now,” said offensive tackle Willie Anderson. “But everybody's looking out the corner of our eyes at Akili. We know Jeff's gone. We listen to Blake, but at the same time we're looking to see if Akili is going to be the leader.”

        One of the reasons the 49ers lasted nearly two decades between down cycles was their ability to stockpile quarterbacks. When Joe Montana's days were dwindling, Steve Young was available and ready to replace him.

        The Bengals, by contrast, have been marked by hasty departures (Boomer Esiason, twice) and overmatched newcomers (David Klingler, Neil O'Donnell, Akili Smith). Keeping Blake another year might be the prudent course — just in case Smith struggles or remains susceptible to injury — but it might also be seen as an extravagance.

Not franchise-worthy
        “Franchise” players must be paid at least the average salary of the top five people at their position. Most days, Jeff Blake doesn't deserve that.

        Blake makes better decisions than he once did — in fairness, his teammates have not always afforded him the best alternatives — but he has yet to lead the Bengals to a playoff game in six seasons and it's probably time to try someone else. For all the euphoria he felt, Sunday marked the first time in more than two years that Blake started a home game the Bengals won. Next Sunday's game against Cleveland figures to be his farewell to Cincinnati.

        “That's why I felt kind of emotional after the game,” Blake said. “Especially the way we're playing right now. The way we're playing right now on offense, it would be tough for anybody to stop us. The only one who can stop us now is ourselves.” Among Jeff Blake's more endearing qualities is that he always believes the best is yet to be. He is a pretty good quarterback who probably deserves a better fate.

        E-mail Tim Sullivan at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

Quarter century worth of payback
The rare, sweet taste of victory Paul Daugherty column
Dillon carries the day
BENGALS NOTEBOOK
GAME STATISTICS
Young DBs can't catch 'aging' Rice
Join the discussion at our Bengals forum