Can Blake shake his old Bengals?

11-5-02, 11:15 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The best Bengals quarterback not Boomer Esiason in this 12-year spin cycle finally gets his chance Sunday in Baltimore when Jeff Blake gets another start for the Ravens.

In fact, the last points the Bengals produced in Baltimore came four years ago when Blake did what he always did and somehow found Carl Pickens 67 yards away for a touchdown.

In fact, the last time the Bengals produced any kind of big offensive numbers anywhere consistently came with Blake pulling the trigger on the NFL's best deep ball. And if people have forgotten, Blake isn't afraid to remind them.

In fact, some would say he is the first victim of the Bengals' quarterback carousel that haunts the franchise to this day. A day when Bengaldom is immersed in the "What If," question of Jon Kitna losing his job in the offseason.

"Look at all those things we did with Carl Pickens and Darnay Scott and I just think it was under appreciated," Blake said Monday from Baltimore. "At least we were competitive. We were in close games every week and we put some numbers up. We were 7-9, 8-8, and then 7-9 again. I have a feeling that people appreciate it now."

When Kitna threw four touchdown passes last Sunday in Houston, he was the first Cincinnati quarterback to have more than two touchdown passes in a game since Blake in '99. When Kitna threw for 751 yards at the end of last season, it was the first back-to-back 300-yard games since Blake did it a second time in 1996.

Blake says he's not delighting in the Bengals' passing miseries. He says he's not wallowing in the AFC passing stats or wishing ill winds on Paul Brown Stadium.

"I haven't set foot in Cincinnati since the day I left. No one talked to me or said a word to me when I left. . .The only thing I know about them is what I hear on ESPN," Blake said. "I don't wish anyone bad. They've been through enough suffering. I hope they do well."

But he can also tell you, "I threw (nine) touchdown passes in my last six games there and they probably haven't come close to that."

Right tackle Willie Anderson, who along with center Rich Braham is the only player left from '96, starts smiling when his name is mentioned.

"The memories start flowing," Anderson said. "We had a quarterback who was the talk of the league. When I got here in '96, I'm thinking, 'I'm here with Shake-and-Blake. I'm here with Pickens. I'm here with stars.'

"Blake got caught up in the times," Anderson said. "When you lose, the quarterback takes the blame and he's gone. The quarterback thing in Cincinnati is there are times he doesn't have the individual game he should have, but at the same time he always hasn't had the players around him talent-wise to help make up for that. It's been a problem with any guy that's been there."

Somehow, Blake became a journeyman quarterback as quickly as he came out of nowhere to craft one of the more remarkable NFL stories of the '90s. In 13 months, he went from the waiver wire to Wailuku

when he

came off the bench as the No. 3 quarterback to lead the Bengals to their only three wins of 1994 and then won a berth in Hawaii and the Pro Bowl after the '95 season by leading the AFC with 28 touchdown passes. But by late in the 1997 season, he was a 26-year-old asterisk.

"I think Mike (Brown) was looking to prove his point and I think his point was that the offense was the reason we weren't winning," said Blake of the Bengals president. "But it really was the reason (when they won.) Is Jeff Blake still there? Is Carl Pickens? Darnay Scott? But is Takeo Spikes still there? Is Brian Simmons still there?"

Blake threw 24 more touchdown passes in 1996 to lead the Bengals to their only .500 season of the past 12, but once they broke to a 3-8 start in what was supposed to be a playoff season in 1997, Blake was out after throwing eight touchdown passes and seven interceptions.

When Esiason led the team to a 4-1 finish with more decisive play, the Bengals thought all they needed was to upgrade the quarterback even after Esiason retired and Blake was still around. But free-agent Neil O'Donnell wasn't the answer in 1998 and No. 1 pick Akili Smith wasn't the answer in 1999.

Blake was left to start four of the team's seven wins in those seasons after O'Donnell and Smith got hurt, but the Bengals grew impatient with his inability to complete high-percentage passes and keep drives going.

Yet he still wonders why he got the hook in 1997. After all, by the time he got benched, he had thrown 74 touchdown passes in 52 starts with the benefit of just two 100-yard rushing games. In '97, Blake got three starts with a rookie runner named Corey Dillon and won one of them when Dillon went for 123 in his first start.

"I had two solid years and my point is, let me play out of my slump," Blake said. "But it seems like I never had that chance because I was a sixth-round pick. Look around the league at a guy like Jake Plummer and they always let him play out of it. Give me a whole season. Let me play out of it."

Anderson has always wondered what the return of Esiason in '97 did to Blake. The Bengals saw him as a solid backup who knew head coach Bruce Coslet's system. Blake said he wasn't consulted on the move and thinks there was more to it ("That was the beginning of the end,") but there was such a difference between how Blake played in '96 and '97, Anderson wonders.

"He underestimated the power Boomer had," Anderson said. "Just his presence. Just being on the sidelines. Even though they ran Boomer out of town the first time, the second time around the fans love you. What happened to Blake is usually when a Pro Bowl quarterback has a bad game, fans aren't going to boo, and want the other guy put in. Do you think that happens to Peyton Manning? But they're going to scream for Boomer Esiason."

Blake didn't like the Esiason move and he made it clear he wasn't keen on the drafting of Smith. Anderson saw "a strained relationship."

Smith admits all that and thinks maybe the team just should have sat him that first year in '99, let Blake play out his contract, and then have Smith take over in 2000. Instead, the Bengals started 0-4 in '99 and turned to Smith before he suffered a season-ending toe injury in the eighth game.

"He was a good guy, a good person, but we didn't have the relationship we should have," Smith said. "That made it real tough on me. I didn't understand why he looked at me like that. I wasn't the person that drafted him. I was hoping he would take me under his wing and coach me up, but it didn't happen like that. He wasn't rude, he was just stand-offish and I can understand that. Here's a young kid coming into take his job getting all this money and he still thinks he can play."

Blake said he had nothing against Smith, but he still thinks it's crazy to put a rookie quarterback into a starting situation with no experience.

"You're going to get the guy killed. It wasn't the best thing for Akili," Blake said. "Look at (Chad) Pennington with the Jets and, really, Redman here. They've sat for a few years and watched."

Blake proved he could still play when he left, leading the Saints to the 2000 playoffs with a 7-3 record and 82.7 passer rating before his dislocated foot gave rise to Aaron Brooks.

"Once Aaron won that playoff game, I was out and he was in," Blake said. "Once he won the playoff game, it was over for me in New Orleans. He's a great player. Yeah, people probably don't remember (he started seven wins), but I'm too old to worry about stuff like that."

Blake turns 32 next month – three days after the Ravens come to Cincinnati Dec. 1 _ and more than 17,000 yards have gone under the bridge. He's got 108 touchdowns and 73 interceptions in his career and his 6.8 yards per attempt this year show he can still go deep.

He took the blame for his fumble deep in Atlanta territory last Sunday during the Ravens' loss and he has two touchdown passes and four interceptions in pinch-hitting for Redman.

"It's the little things," Blake said. "We came close to hitting some big plays Sunday, but we were off by only a little bit. It's going to get there."

Blake says he won't be wrapped up in all the emotion. He knows the Bengals know he'll go long on them. There are no predictions of long bombs against a secondary that has struggled against the long pass.

"I respect anybody in this league," Blake said. "They've got good players on defense. Takeo Spikes is a great linebacker. Brian Simmons is a great linebacker. I look at them like any other team."

But Anderson knows it will be something special for him.

"I know he's going to bring a great deal of passion to this game and he's going to be out there willing his teammates to go with him," Anderson said. "I saw him do some great things. I've got a lot of respect for the things he can do against us."

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