Wednesday, March 06, 2002

It's time to go after Bledsoe

        So far as we know, Elvis Grbac is still retired. So far as we know, he really means it.

        So far, so good.

        If the Cincinnati Bengals are inclined to make another change at quarterback, to replace Jon Kitna just as we were getting used to his haircut, they should stop signing stopgaps and go after the genuine article.

        They should take Grbac at his word, refrain from revisiting their contract talks for the nevermore Raven, and make a determined play for Drew Bledsoe.

        Grbac intrigued us last year as the best of a bad lot, the most enticing quarterback in a feeble free-agent market. He has since lost that luster, leading the defending champion Baltimore Ravens to playoff palookaville and himself to unemployment. Rather than accept a $5 million cut in compensation from the Ravens, or to entertain bids from the Bengals, Grbac has elected to take a pass on continued passing.

        Perhaps his retirement is only a ploy. Perhaps, as one NFL agent theorized Tuesday, Grbac simply is trying to create leverage in a limited marketplace. But if this is a game, it's one Mike Brown doesn't play.

        The Bengals owner will take no for an answer, but usually only once.

        “I can't tell you what (Grbac) is thinking,” Brown said Tuesday. “Only he can say that. I'm mystified. He's not at the back end of his career. He's really in the very heart of his career. You wouldn't think he would quit playing now, but that's apparently what he's saying. I just take him at face value.”

        Translated: If the Bengals leave any candles burning in the window this week, it's to economize on electricity.

        “Grbac, I think, is old news,” said Jim Lippincott, the Bengals' pro/college personnel director. “I can assure you we've gone on.”

        History says the Bengals are headed in the direction of least drama, that they are about as likely to make a splashy trade for Bledsoe as they are to roll back ticket prices. Yet if Brown believes — as he often has professed — consistent quarterback play is all that separates the Bengals from playoff contention, Bledsoe belongs atop his priority list.

        Bledsoe has been named to three Pro Bowls and twice has thrown for more than 4,000 yards in a season. At 30, he is 18 months younger than Grbac and only seven months older than Kitna, who ranked 30th out of 30 qualifiers in last season's NFL passing ratings.

        Because Bledsoe still belongs to the New England Patriots, the Bengals are unable to discuss him publicly. Because the Patriots stand to take a substantial salary cap hit if they trade or release Bledsoe, they may expect significant compensation.

        Yet rather than pay Bledsoe $5million to back up Tom Brady, the Pats might prefer to redeploy those resources to retain other parts of their Super Bowl squad.

        Patriots coach Bill Belichick has to know keeping Bledsoe could create divisions in his dressing room. Brown has to know Bledsoe no longer costs an established linebacker but might be had for a second- or third-round draft choice.

        Part of Grbac's appeal was he would cost the Bengals nothing in terms of talent. Bledsoe would not come so cheaply. Yet after a decade of quarterback blunders, the Bengals can ill-afford to skimp.

        Contact Tim Sullivan at 768-8456 or e-mail:


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