Emory's evening symposia have paid off in a very big way, because Jeff is not surprised by anything that a defense throws his way. Before Sunday's game Coslet, now Cincinnati's offensive coordinator, said, "In three weeks Jeff has faced three entirely different defenses. In Dallas he played a man-zone team with great team speed. In Seattle he played a strict zone team. In Houston it was blitz city—he was blitzed on three out of every four downs. I'm watching him handle this and make no mistakes, and I say to myself, This is amazing. Is this a dream?"
At an even six feet, Blake is about as short as most NFL teams want a quarterback to be (though height may be yet another area in which blacks are held to a more rigorous standard than whites). But he has thrown 147 passes for the Bengals and has had just one batted down.
As far as a tendency to scramble goes, Blake would be killed playing behind the porous Bengal line were it not for his mobility. The consistent ability to sense the rush and avoid it by scrambling has been crucial to his success. "The system is so hung up on this prototype NFL quarterback thing," Blake says. "You're supposed to drop back, stay in the pocket, don't move unless you're about to be sacked. Ridiculous. A quarterback has to be spontaneous. Look at Steve Young. And yet black quarterbacks are criticized for that. When I got to Cincinnati, the media asked me, 'Are you a scrambler?' I said, 'Did you ask Klingler that question?' It's such a stereotype."
Blake thinks that while NFL teams will give a white quarterback like Heath Shuler, the Washington Redskins' first-round draft pick, four or five years to develop, they will not make the same allowances for a black quarterback. Blake points to Marvin Graves, a star at Syracuse who is roughly the same size as Shuler, who is now playing for the Toronto Argonauts in the CFL. "What is the difference between Marvin Graves and Heath Shuler?" he says. "Opportunity. You give me any 10 football events and put Marvin Graves and Heath Shuler against each other to compete, and let's see who wins. When I came out of college the CFL wanted me, but I felt that would be like quitting. What I can do now is play my butt off and make it easier for the next guy to have a shot."
Blake is going a long way toward accomplishing that. On Sunday he nearly led Cincinnati to its first three-game winning streak in four years. With Cincinnati trailing 17-13 with 1:29 left in the game, Blake lofted one of his rainbow bombs for wideout Darnay Scott at the Colt 15. The pass went right through Scott's hands. Four plays later, Blake launched another one for Scott at the goal line. Cornerback Ray Buchanan pushed Scott away with his right arm, sending the receiver off-balance, and made the interception—only the second Blake has thrown in 147 attempts this season.
After the Bengals' game against Dallas, Cowboy linebacker Dixon Edwards said, "Wait till he gets some experience. He's going to kick some tail. I feel sorry for the team they play next." That was the Seattle Seahawks, whom Blake burned with 31 completions on 43 attempts for 387 yards, as Cincinnati won 20-17 in overtime. Then to thunderous ovations at Riverfront he roughed up the Houston Oilers, twice returning to the game after hurting his ankle, and leading the Bengals to 10 points in the final four minutes of a 34—31 victory. "Football players need to have fun to be good," says Scott, a rookie. "You can't just show up with talent and be good. Jeff's lifted this whole team by himself."
"People come up to me, shocked at how I've done," Blake said last week at his town-house apartment in Fort Wright, Ky. "They say, 'You're playing like a five-or six-year veteran.' Well, I have played games in my mind, over and over. I played the Houston Oilers five times before I ever played them on the field. You watch so much film that nothing that [defensive end] Ray Childress or [cornerback] Cris Dishman or [linebacker] Micheal Barrow does surprises you." In the game against the Oilers, Blake undressed Dishman, an All-Pro. Carl Pickens, who was covered most of the day by Dishman, caught 11 passes for 188 yards and three touchdowns.
Blake is currently making the NFL minimum for a third-year veteran of $162,000, and his contract expires after the season. The Bengals will most likely sign him to a rich long-term deal and hand him the starting job for good.
One night last week Blake was sitting in his living room, resting his ankle, when his wife, Lewanna, and his two children, son Emory and daughter Torre, returned home from a chore that the Blake family never before had to contend with. "I went to the phone company," Lewanna said, "to change the number. Every time I'd hang it up, it would start ringing again."
The call has finally come for Jeff Blake.