Barkley-Driskel derby highlights roster jousts in finale

Jeff Driskel tries to nail down a job in this pre-season finale instead of getting nailed.
Jeff Driskel tries to nail down a job in this pre-season finale instead of getting nailed.

The numbers would say the Bengals back-up quarterback job is Jeff Drisklel's to lose in Thursday night's pre-season finale (7 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) against the Colts at Paul Brown Stadium in the last outing before they cut 33 players on Saturday.

And the funny thing is the roster joust is all about a numbers game, but it doesn't always come down to numbers. Driskel has a better compeletion percentage than Matt Barkley (63.2-51.5), more yards per pass (8.79-6.97), a better passer rating (89.1-71.5) and each has thrown a touchdown pass and an interception. In his 13 series, Driskel has generated 21 points and two of his passes (a TD and a two-pointer) put the Bengals ahead to stay. In 12 series Barkley has put up points seven times, six on field goals.

But Barkley has six more NFL starts and played in 11 more NFL games than Driskel, a guy that has exactly 0.0 big-league games. Barkley, who turns 28 the day before the opener, is a fourth-rounder and former USC headliner in his sixth season. Driskel, 25, is a sixth-rounder in his third year who started at two schools before the 49ers drafted and cut him and he bounced to the Bengals on 2016 Waiver Day.

Two guys from opposite ends of the football world. One job.

"Tough call," said first-year Bengals quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt, with his fourth NFL team in his ninth season coaching quarterbacks. "One of the toughest calls I've seen in my coaching career. That's a tribute to how hard these guys have worked."

The Barkley-Driskel derby highlights other intriguing finale storylines, some that are clouded by injury. With wide receiver Cody Core sidelined can rookie Auden Tate convince them to keep six receivers? With safety-cornerback Josh Shaw (groin) and cornerback Davontae Harris (knee) uncertain, do they keep six corners and four safeties or five of each? Has middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson done enough to be the sixth linebacker in the slot opened by Vontaze Burfict's four-game suspension? Will H-Back Ryan Hewitt, who played seven snaps in Buffalo and three in Dallas (one less than No. 5 running back Brian Hill), get one last shot to beat out Cethan Carter?

"We said let these guys battle to the very end and now it's here," Van Pelt said. "You're really basing it on an offseason of work and four pre-season games. They're neck and neck. They each have their strong points. Matt is more experienced in game situations than Jeff, but that's not Jeff's fault. It all goes into consideration."

Matt Barkley shows off his experience in the pocket.
Matt Barkley shows off his experience in the pocket.

Van Pelt isn't just grading it, he lived it during nine back-up seasons straddling the turn of the century in Buffalo. He's probably a cross between Barkley and Driskel. He left Pitt as the Panthers' all-time leading passer but didn't get drafted until the final round of the eight-round draft in 1993 when the hometown Steelers took him. But he didn't stick with a club until after he bounced from the Steelers to the Chiefs and made the 1995 Bills.

"I played like crap," Van Pelt said of that rookie camp.

Then in Buffalo he beat out the guy that beat him out in Pittsburgh.

"Rick Strom," said Van Pelt, who can't remember if he put him away in the pre-season finale. "I don't know. I was on the other side of the wall for those discussions. It was my third camp. I had a feel for how it worked."

But he remembers winning a job in the '98 pre-season finale coming off shoulder surgery and realizing he really hadn't made a convincing throw to show the Bills he was healthy. He saved the best for last when he went on a play-action rollout and threw a deep comeback back across the field.

"It got there," he said. "One of my last years I played three quarters of the last game in Philly and I was like 32 years old in there with a bunch of 20-year-old rookies. I knew I had to play for my job. That's part of the deal."

Van Pelt survived. What's hard to know is if a big or poor performance by Barkley or Driskel lifts them or takes them out. If it is truly neck-and-neck, maybe it would. But Van Pelt suggests the finale is "one segment of work that gets evaluated."

Driskel says he's having no such thoughts. He says he's only looking at the play sheets.

"I don't want to down play it. You don't get that many opportunities at this level," he said. "You hope for the best. I'll be prepared. My goal is to play within the offense."

Driskel has done that, which may be the biggest question since there don't seem to be a lot of questions about his athleticism and arm. He showcased both on the scrambling 33-yard touchdown pass to Auden Tate that beat the Bears with 2:04 left in the pre-season opener. In Dallas, he put the ball only where wide receiver John Ross could catch it along the back line of the end zone for the go-ahead two-point conversion that capped a 14-play, 92-yard drive.

"I think I've proven I can play ball," Driskel said. "I can go out and create big plays, but also sustain drives and play within the offense. I've done a lot of good things, but I'm just looking forward to compete and that's what I'm going to do."

Driskel has his own pre-season finale tale to tell. Last year in Indianapolis he was set to play the last three quarters, but on the final play of his first series less than two minutes into the second quarter the Colts blew up a screen on third-and-14 and Driskel shattered his throwing hand.

"That was unfortunate. That happens in football, but that's something that has never really crossed my mind. Just go out there and play," Driskel said. "I hit it on the ground. Freak deal. It happens. It's nobody's fault. A bummer. It was a screen. I was dumping it off and I got hit when I was throwing and hit it on the ground. Tough deal."

Everyone from Van Pelt to Driskel to special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons to head coach Marvin Lewis has a pre-season finale tale to tell. Of guys that make it and guys that don't. For all sorts of reasons.

Last year in Indy with Driskel re-emerging in a splint and the Bengals trying to protect No. 2 QB AJ McCarron, running back Jarveon Williams rushed to 117 yards and a spot on the practice squad. In 2010 in Indy running back Cedric Peerman broke off a 93-yard TD run to secure a spot.

Keep an eye on the kickers. In Lewis' first season in the 2003 finale in Indy, kicker Neil Rackers got hurt chasing down a wayward snap and never played for the Bengals again when Shayne Graham came off the waiver wire to replace him and ended up staying for seven years and 779 points. Last year rookie kicker Jake Elliott ending up missing two winners in the final  4:47, the last a 60-yard miss at the gun, got cut and ended up with a Super Bowl ring for the Eagles.

"The preseason has had its ups and downs," Lewis said. "That's the good part of it. It's needed for us and is valuable. Let's get to another one."

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