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NFL '98
By the Numbers | Inside Slant | Lineup
Scouting Report

4 - Cincinnati Bengals

On a team with more than its share of woes, a quarterback controversy—Jeff Blake or Neil O'Donnell?—threatens further turmoil

  Jeff Blake
Only three years after leading the AFC in touchdown passes and completions, Blake is fighting for his job.    (Bill Frakes)
If there's one NFL team that really doesn't need a quarterback controversy, it's Cincinnati. The Bengals are—apologies to Robert Downey Jr.—the Robert Downey Jr. of pro football. They look O.K. on film. They even put on a good show every so often. Underneath, however, lie some serious issues.

Cincinnati's top linebacker, James Francis, was booted from a spring minicamp after weighing in at 275 pounds, and coach Bruce Coslet told him to shed some pounds; Francis reported to training weighing 275 pounds. Rookie linebacker Takeo Spikes was involved in two scrapes on his first day of practice with the club. Punter Lee Johnson and special teams coach Al Roberts don't get along.

Nothing, however, can divide a team faster than a quarterback controversy. In his four seasons with the Bengals, Jeff Blake has seen the highs (21 wins as a starter) and, more often, the lows (31 losses). He has 74 touchdown passes and 48 interceptions. He still hurls those breathtaking, Daryle Lamonica-style bombs. "I've been comfortable with Blake for the last three years," says Carl Pickens, Cincy's top wideout. "Jeff's a helluva quarterback—he makes plays. He can scramble, he can run, he can throw. We need that. Maybe a lot of people don't see how good he is. But guys on this team, they know."

Guys do. Coaches don't. Blake should begin the season as Coslet's starter, but the odds of his holding the job are somewhere between none and none. Former Jet Neil O'Donnell, who signed as a free agent in July, has not only taken a team to a Super Bowl and thrown with amazing accuracy during his eight-year career, but he also was the recipient of a deal that will pay him $5.25 million this year and $12 million over the following three seasons. (Blake's average annual salary is just under $3 million.)

Question: How many backup quarterbacks made $5.25 million last season?

Answer: None.

This—surprise!—does not leave Blake smiling. "I'm definitely pissed," he says. "I was mad when they signed [Neil]. Why wouldn't I be? But the only thing that matters is winning. I had 28 touchdown passes and went to the Pro Bowl three years ago, but we didn't win any games. Troy Aikman has never thrown many touchdown passes, but he's won Super Bowls. So what can I say? I haven't won."

13 at Detroit
27 at Baltimore
18 at Tennessee
25 at Oakland
8 at Jacksonville
15 at Minnesota
13 at Indianapolis
20 at Pittsburgh
Last season, after quarterbacking the Bengals to a 3-8 start, Blake was benched. He completed 58% of his passes, but he had almost as many interceptions (seven) as touchdown passes (eight), and he was sacked 39 times. Blake was replaced by the now retired Boomer Esiason, who finished with a 4-1 run. So what if Esiason's success coincided with Corey Dillon's replacing the impotent Ki-Jana Carter as the starting running back? So what if the line was banged up for most of Blake's starts?

Now comes what seems like a last stand. Blake, who worked with a personal trainer this off-season, reported to camp in amazing shape, looking more like a linebacker than a quarterback. He threw the ball extremely well, with an improved short touch.

Blake has a bold, confident presence in the huddle, one this collection of misfits could use. O'Donnell, while perhaps more skilled, was never popular in New York, in part because of his lack of charisma. He, like Blake, has put up some solid numbers (17 TD passes, seven interceptions last year), but he is as inspiring as Mr. Rogers. Teammates refuse to take sides, but many believe Blake has gotten a bad rap—that the coaching staff puts too much blame on him, his disheartening streakiness notwithstanding.

Pickens and Darnay Scott are as dangerous a receiving duo as you'll find. And Dillon, who burst on the scene with 1,129 rushing yards (including an NFL rookie-record 246 in a December win over the Oilers), has given Cincinnati a ground game. The defense, meanwhile, has excelled in stopping absolutely no one. In hopes of infusing the unit with new life and veteran maturity, the Bengals brought in strong safety Myron Bell from the Steelers, cornerback Thomas Randolph from the Giants and defensive ends Michael Bankston and Clyde Simmons, late of the Cardinals and the Jaguars, respectively.

And, of course, they brought in O'Donnell, creating a situation that Coslet is dealing with gingerly. "I wouldn't call it a quarterback controversy," he says. "It's a competition.

Jeff Pearlman

By the Numbers | Inside Slant | Lineup

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