Cincinnati Bengal offensive line coach Jim McNally watched as quarterback Jeff Blake slowly, painfully made his way from the trainers' room into the empty locker room at the Bengals' practice facility one afternoon last week. "There he is," said McNally, "Moses."
Hobbling on a bruised left ankle, Blake did not look like a savior, but looks can be deceiving. In one month Blake has made the journey from third string to Cincinnati's most valuable player, giving new life to the league's worst team and establishing himself as one of the NFL's brightest new marketing tools.
On Oct. 23, starting quarterback David Klingler and then his backup, Donald Hollas, were knocked out of the Bengals' game against the Cleveland Browns. Neither was ready to go the following week against the Dallas Cowboys, and Blake suddenly found himself facing the top ranked defense in football. Blake staked Cincinnati to a stunning 14-0 lead with two touchdown bombs early in the second quarter. The Bengals lost 23-20, but since then, with Blake at the helm, they have won two of three games with the most exciting quarterback play east of Steve Young. Blake's 96.6 quarterback rating would be second best (to Young) in the NFL if he had the required number of pass attempts. Klingler, the Bengals' first-round draft pick in 1991, is again healthy, but he's not likely to win his job back anytime soon.
And the Queen City is swooning. Replicas of Blake's number 8 jersey have become the hottest-selling item of the decade in Cincinnati's sporting-goods stores, according to one retailer. On Sunday at Riverfront Stadium there were 32 Blake banners fluttering in the breeze as a Blake-engineered comeback fell short and Cincy lost to the Indianapolis Colts 17-13. Remarkably, ticket scalpers, a species thought to be extinct in Cincinnati, have been spotted in recent weeks working the skywalk from downtown to the stadium. "He was sent to us straight out of central casting," says Bengal general manager Mike Brown.
Blake's fairy-tale success with the Bengals is vindication for the sixth-round draft choice out of East Carolina, who was selected by the New York Jets in 1992 after leading the Pirates to an 11-1 season, their winningest season ever. After throwing all of nine passes in his rookie year, Blake spent last season breaking down film for then Jet coach Bruce Coslet. In the off-season New York switched coaches and drafted Boston College quarterback Glenn Foley in the seventh round. Blake was waned on Aug. 28. Says Jet general manager Dick Steinberg, " Foley had a great camp, and we decided on Foley, thinking that Glenn was a little further along as a prospect."
Steinberg's explanation sounds plausible, but Blake, who is black, doesn't buy it. "I'm not going to say what I really think," he says. "But they kept the guy with blond hair and blue eyes."
"I'm sorry Jeff feels that way, but [race] wasn't an issue," says Steinberg. "We based this on who we thought would be the best player for the Jets in the long run."
While Blake's bitterness toward New York may or may not be warranted, it is clear that black quarterbacks must often overcome stereotypes that are not applied to their white counterparts. That remains true long after quarterbacking jobs in the NFL have ceased to be the exclusive domain of whites: Doug Williams took the Washington Redskins to a Super Bowl win as the game's MVP back in 1988; Warren Moon is destined for the Hall of Fame; and, in a telling indication of racial progress, Vince Evans has proved over a 14-year NFL career that there is even a place in the league for a black journeyman.
Still, no black quarterback has emerged as an NFL star since Randall Cunningham was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1985, and Blake has surely heard the bigotry that is couched in the jargon of scouts. Blacks are still referred to as "athletes" and often deemed too inclined to scramble out of the pocket. Worse, there are still those who believe that blacks don't have the intelligence needed to play quarterback.
Blake puts the lie to all of that. At the age of 10 he was calling audibles in his Pop Warner League in Sanford, Fla. His dad, Emory, a former CFL running back, was determined that Jeff be the most knowledgeable player on the field, and so dinnertime became a football clinic. Emory would quiz Jeff on formations and on schemes. "My dad never wanted anybody to be able to say I wasn't smart enough to be a quarterback," Jeff says.