Sunday, August 15, 1999

Blake turns back Bengal clock


QB relaxed, relazed, passionate against Colts

BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        INDIANAPOLIS — Long-term, Akili Smith is indispensable, and Lord knows the Cincinnati Bengals are a long-term proposition.

        Smith is the future of the franchise, a young quarterback with the raw ingredients of greatness. Each day of his holdout is harmful, every missed practice a lost learning opportunity.

        Short-term, however, maybe it's not so bad. Maybe Jeff Blake functions better without a serious rival waiting in the wings.

        Some guys respond to competition. Some guys respond to confidence. Jeff Blake seems to be at his best when there's no one breathing down his neck.

        “There's no seems about it,” Blake said Saturday night. “That's what it is. You go to work with somebody looking over your shoulder, you're going to make more mistakes.”

        The Bengals' once and current quarterback opened the preseason Saturday night with his most encouraging effort in years, an effort at least partially attributable to his newfound job security. Blake completed six of 10 passes for 92 yards and two first-half touchdowns before the Bengals backups lost the momentum, the lead and a 20-17 decision to the Indianapolis Colts.

        Blake threw long — a 66-yard touchdown pass to Darnay Scott. He threw short — a 1-yard score to Marco Battaglia. He sustained a scoring drive by dashing 17 yards for a first down in a third-and-9 predica ment. He played with passion and, for him, precision. He performed like a man with nothing to prove and everything to savor, the way he did in the autumn of 1994, when he seized his first big chance by the scruff of the neck.

        “I see a different Jeff this year,” said running back Corey Dillon. “Last year he was going through a whole ordeal. Maybe it was a distraction. Now he's having fun.”

        “Jeff had a lot of birds over his head last year,” Scott said. “A lot of stuff was going on. This game tonight gave him his confidence back. I'm not saying he lost it, but he's more relaxed. He takes charge of the huddle.”

        Maybe Saturday night meant nothing. These were the Colts, after all, and this was the Bengals' first shakedown scrimmage of the summer. Yet the two touchdowns Blake threw at the RCA Dome were two more than he threw during last summer's entire exhibition season, when he was completing only 41 percent of his passes and losing his job to Neil O'Donnell. Blake had not thrown two touchdowns in one game since September 1997, before he lost his job to Boomer Esiason.

        “Jeff did pretty good,” Bengals coach Bruce Coslet said. “But I expected him to be better. He's taken twice as many snaps (in practice) as he did last year.”

        Bengals General Manager Mike Brown volunteered for some of the blame. He said Saturday last year's quarterback arrangement was unworkable, with Blake, O'Donnell and Paul Justin all competing for starting status.

        “You can't work three quarterbacks (adequately),” Brown said. “And we had five in camp. You've got to give your guys every opportunity during practice and in the games. Maybe some of that was my fault.”

        O'Donnell and Justin are gone. The second-string quarterback on the depth chart is a holdout. Blake is again The Man — undisputed and unchallenged so long as Smith is unsigned — and Saturday's performance served only to solidify his position.

        “He wanted to prove a point — that he can still play,” Bengals tackle Willie Anderson said. “When you've been to the Pro Bowl and then you've been on the bench for two years, it's hard.”

        None of this is likely to affect the Bengals' negotiations with Smith. Blake's contract expires at the end of the season, after all, and he figures to be somewhere else next year. The Bengals need to get Smith into camp now for the sake of the 2000 season and beyond.

        But while the need for Smith remains acute, it may not be quite so immediate. For the moment, at least, Blake has filled the void.

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

       



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