Blakemania develops into Linsanity


Jeff Blake

Before Linsanity, there was Blakemania.

For once, Cincinnati has been there and done that before the Big Apple.

Six years after NBA guard Jeremy Lin was born and 18 years before he came out of oblivion and the New York City housing crunch to dominate the sports world the past 10 days, a waiver-wire pickup named Jeff Blake fell out of the blue like one of his deep balls tumbling from the sky to revive the Bengals out of their post-Boomer coma.

"If Blake had done what he did in New York instead of Cincinnati, it wouldn't be as big as Jeremy Lin, but you'd still be hearing about it," former Bengals wide receiver Tim McGee said Thursday. "Talk about what market you do it in. What Lin is doing is great. It's fun. Yeah, it's a lot like what Jeff did. A guy bouncing around and ending up in the Pro Bowl."

Unlike Lin, Blake was cut only once, he was drafted, and he was in his third season as a pro, not his second.

(Naturally, he was cut by a New York team, the Jets, while Lin reigns with New York's Knicks.)

But as a sixth-round pick out of East Carolina, Blake, like Lin, was a small school afterthought as a No. 3 quarterback that needed an event from the natural world bordering on a phenomenon to get a shot.

For Blake, it was starting quarterback David Klingler and backup Donald Hollas getting hurt within a few snaps of each other in the final moments of a blowout loss in Cleveland that dropped the Bengals to 0-7 for 1994. Klingler and Hollas were hurt badly enough they couldn't play the next week at home and the tryout candidates weren't good enough to prevent Blake from making his first NFL start against the Super Bowl champion Cowboys despite throwing all of nine NFL passes.

Like Lin, Blake was 23.

The day before Halloween was about right. Blake tricked the Cowboys with the prettiest deep ball this side of a rainbow and treated a stunned house to a riveting matchup with future Hall of Famer Troy Aikman that Dallas pulled out with five minutes left, 23-20, on the strength of a phantom roughing the QB call on fourth down.

"That's the day I'll never forget," said McGee, who was in his last season. "What he did to America's Team and almost beating them in here ...

"You know what Jeff Blake did?" asked McGee, a sports agent and marketer living in Cincinnati. "He gave us hope in the darkest of times. He gave the fans entertainment when there had been nothing there. And, yeah, it was out of nowhere."

Blake leaned back and unleashed Blakemania with touchdown bombs of 67 and 55 yards to rookie wide receiver Darnay Scott in the game's first 15 minutes and suddenly the 0-8 Bengals were on top of the Super Bowl champs, 14-0.

Two balls of 122 yards. The week before the Bengals had passed for 146. The week before it was 135 and two weeks before that in the Astrodome they threw for 74.

Two balls for 122 yards? Scott had the team's first 100-yard receiving game at Riverfront in nearly three years. This was Jeremy Lin in shoulder pads.

"Jeff threw to their strengths," McGee said of Scott and Pro Bowl wide receiver Carl Pickens. "You couldn't overthrow Darnay he was so fast and Carl could jump up and grab it if you gave him the chance. For a while there it reminded me of what me and Eddie (Brown) would do with Boomer (Esiason)."

Blake followed it up with the first two wins of the season, chucking back-to-back 300-yard games, and while he couldn't get another win until the finale he briefly topped the AFC passing list and finished with 14 touchdown passes in the final nine games, more than the Bengals had in all of 1993 and more than double what Klingler had thrown in the first seven games.

And don't forget the Shake-N-Blake T-shirts and songs.

"Just like Jeremy Lin because after that first game it was like, 'OK, you were lucky,' " McGee said. "Then it was 'OK, see if you keep doing it.' Then after the fifth game or so it was, 'Hey, where have you been?' "

Blake, now 40, politely listened to the Linsanity-Blakemania comparison from Austin, Texas on Thursday and admitted it was all a blur.

"Everything happened so fast," Blake said. "All of a sudden I was in there playing. It was such a surprise because back then quarterbacks just didn't come out of nowhere. It happens more now. Look at the guy the Bengals had this year. A rookie. No one expected him to do that. But back then, it seemed like that just didn't happen. You had to get established with guys like (Dan) Marino, (John) Elway, (Jim) Kelly."

Free agency, younger than Blake's three-year-old son Emory, had yet to take hold in the NFL. Quarterbacks weren't nearly as recycled, the paychecks didn't demand that they play right away, and there was more waiting their turn in deference to the sanctity of the playbook.

But not then; not in Cincinnati. The offensively-impaired Bengals and embattled head coach Dave Shula held on to Blake for dear life and eschewed the first-round pick, Klinger, for the 1995 season. The Bengals started 2-0 and just missed going 3-2 when Blake nearly outdueled Marino with three TD passes at Riverfront but got beat by a Hall of Fame two-minute drill.

In the first five games Blake had 11 TDs and just one pick and he was on his way to the Pro Bowl while two disastrous losses to the terrible Browns-soon-to-be-Ravens turned a 9-7 season into 7-9.

Not only had Blake gone from the waiver wire to Waikiki, but he had taken a team that was 4-24 in the 28 previous games to 10-15 in his first 25 starts. After that fifth game of 1995 (and 14th total) he also went from minimum salary to the highest restricted tender to a $12 million deal through the end of the century.

(If Lin found an apartment, Blake found the deed.)

Here are the passing numbers in Cincinnati's 28 games before Blake:

853 attempts and 462 completions for 4,790 yards, 20 TDs and 22 interceptions, for 54 percent, 5.6 yards per attempt and a passer rating of 67.7.

Blake's first 25 starts:

872-482 for 5,976 yards, 42 TDs and 26 interceptions, for 55 percent, 6.9 yards per attempt, and a passer rating of 80.3.

Like Lin, Blake made an impotent pass offense with the same personnel relevant overnight.

And, like Lin, there were a lot of factors why Blake was a No. 3 QB for the first two and a half seasons of his career. There weren't a lot guys that looked like him doing what he was doing, either. Blake was one of three starting African-American quarterbacks in the 1994 stats with Randall Cunningham and Warren Moon.

"It was a little bit of everything," Blake said. "That was a part of it, but a lot of it was going in the sixth round and being from a small school. You get picked in the sixth round and you go to a small school and they don't think you can play even though guys do it all the time. Jerry Rice, Steve McNair, Brian Mitchell, Brandon Stokley. All those guys went to small schools."

Lin hopes his trail lasts longer than Blake's. Blake still had a good year in 1996 in the midst of the coaching change from Shula to Bruce Coslet (24 TDs, 14 picks), but his yards per throw fell to 6.6 as teams took away his long ball because of the desperate lack of a running game. In his first 41 starts, he never had a 100-yard rusher and his defense ranked 15th, 30th and 25th.

Late in 1997, Blake was benched in favor of the man that he made people briefly forget, Esiason, and he was done when the Bengals took Akili Smith with the third pick in the 1999 draft. Blake's pretty long ball didn't match his scruffy completion percentage that never got above 58 percent here.

"We could move the ball, but it was tough without a running game in the red zone and we gave up a lot of points," said Blake, now a consultant and coach. "It is what it is. I don't want to be critical. I enjoyed playing there. People always recognize me as a Bengal and that's fine. I just wish we could have built a championship team. We had some parts, but if you can't run it or consistently stop the other team, it's hard to win."

Blake says he doesn't follow basketball, so he only has a vague sense of Lin and isn't paying much attention. He says he occasionally thinks of Blakemania, but he's pouring all his energies these days into another young guy. Emory, the little kid that walked with him off the field hand-in-hand in that hard-to-forget picture in that Monday morning's Cincinnati Enquirer following the first start, may very well be a first-round pick in 2013 out of Auburn.

Emory Blake, a wide receiver, is not only a veteran of the Dallas game, but also a holdover from quarterback Cam Newton's national title run.

"All he does is score touchdowns," Blake said. "He'll be projected as one of the top five receivers in the draft and it will help him that a lot of junior (receivers) have come out. Late first, early second. And he's a good kid. Smart. Knows the game. Runs good routes."

If Blake sounds like a proud dad, he is.

"Jeff talks about Emory like his father Emory used to talk about Jeff," McGee said.

But the final take on Blakemania isn't all that lighthearted. A little sweet it was so good and so stunning. A little sad it didn't last.

"I think he was one of the more underappreciated guys that played here," McGee said. "He made it fun again."

Blake thinks it's not all that different than what his descendant did this past season in the form of Andy Dalton.

"It's all about giving a guy a chance," Blake said. "Who knows what is going to happen? Look at what that guy did this year. Nobody thought a rookie would do that."

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