11-27-02, 4:45 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
For the first time Sunday, Jeff Blake plays in the house Jeff Blake Helped Build.
Indeed, there is a theory that if David Klingler were the quarterback of a 3-13 Bengals team in March of 1996 and not the swashbuckling Blake coming off a near playoff run, Hamilton County voters would have never passed the half-cent sales tax that funded Paul Brown Stadium and the Bengals would be in Cleveland about now.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the playoffs. Six years later, Blake comes to town trying to keep 5-6 Baltimore in the post-season picture. Against a 1-10 Bengals team that today would have about as much success as McGovern, Mondale, the guy who ran against Martin Sheen, and anyone else on the wrong end of a landslide if, as they say, the election were held today.
"If we tried today, it would be hard, wouldn't it?" asked Bengals President Mike Brown.
Brown knows Blake played a big role when the 1995 Bengals went 7-9 and weren't knocked out of the playoffs until the next-to-last-game. Blake, who hasn't been that deep into a play-off chase until now, went to the Pro Bowl that year.
"He was doing well. Things were upbeat," Brown said. "He went out and took part in the campaign and I'm grateful for the role he played. We had some middle-of-the-road teams, yet we had moments that were exciting and good."
Blake hasn't thought about Paul Brown Stadium in those terms, but there are memories here for him. On Saturday night, he'll probably have
dinner with former teammates Eric Ball and Tim McGee at his favorite restaurant, the Behle Street Café in Covington. On Sunday, he'll play in front of fans like Elizabeth Blackburn, the 10-year-old daughter of Bengals vice president Katie Blackburn who still counts Blake as one of her favorites.
"That's my girl. Isn't that something?" Blake asked. "I think it will be a pretty good reception. I never said anything bad about the fans and the organization. I left quietly and I'm coming back quietly."
Right tackle Willie Anderson, a rookie in 1996, remembers the tail end of those days.
"He was our most visible and vocal star then," Anderson said. "The fans identified with him. There was hope for the future with him."
Of course, he's not coming back all that quietly. He's 2-3 as the Ravens' starter and his best game came against the Bengals three weeks ago in a 38-27 win in Baltimore. He hasn't lit it up with four touchdown passes, six interceptions and a passer rating of 66. But he's not getting the Ravens beat, either, and steered them to an ugly 13-12 win over Tennessee last week. The offense didn't score a touchdown, but it didn't give up a point, either.
Which is Blake's point.
"That was a good win over a good team. They hadn't won (five) in a row for nothing," Blake said. "Our special teams and defense are really playing well. The big thing I have to do is not do anything stupid. Don't make the big turnover, the big mistake that takes us out of it."
Blake goes against a quarterback Sunday who has the second best passer rating in the NFL over the last five games. But Blake knows Jon Kitna's record is 1-4.
"How many games have they won?" Blake asked. "In five weeks, no one is going to remember how many touchdowns we threw. The only thing they'll remember is how many games we won. I can relate to him because there were times I played well there and lost. But we lost. That's why I'm not there any more."
Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome sees a different Blake than the one his teams competed against in the late' 90s.
"Back then, he was a big-play guy," Newsome said. "If you took away his deep ball and made him throw underneath, you were probably going to beat him because he was impatient then. Now, he'll wait and take the short throws, and then try to get the big one in there."
Blake said the quarterbacks and receivers don't have the same pressures to carry the load like there was when he played in Cincinnati. Back when, for the most part, he didn't have a 1,000-yard runner like Jamal Lewis, a tight end in Todd Heap leading the team in catches, yards and touchdowns, or a top ten defense in points allowed.
In his two wins this season, Blake has thrown for less than 200 yards. Against the Bengals, his passer rating was 103.3 while throwing for 183 yards. In the 66 games he started for the Bengals in which he threw for less than 200 yards, the Bengals were 4-17.
But now Blake, who turns 32 next week, doesn't have to do it on his own. And maybe even more importantly, he doesn't try.
"The way the league is right now, you need an efficient quarterback who can manage a game and make three or four throws to win it for you," Newsome said. "He can't lose the game for you and (Blake ) hasn't been the reason we've lost games. In fact, his ability to get out of pocket and his strong arm has kept us alive in games."
It's the youngest team in the NFL, but Blake loves playing for them because, he says, "They never give up." He was on one of the youngest teams in the NFL in 1998 and 1999 in Cincinnati, but it just wasn't the same.
"The difference is probably leadership," Blake said. "There are a lot of guys stepping up who still have those (2000) Super Bowl rings and that goes a long way. Every Saturday we go on the road, they put them on and that inspires the rest of us."
On this Saturday, it's a little bit different because the rings are headed to the stadium he helped build.
His second start at home in 1994, when he threw for 354 yards against the Oilers and hobbled out of the X-Ray room at Riverfront Stadium in the fourth quarter on a sprained ankle and led a drive that ended in Doug Pelfrey's winning field goal at the gun.
"And that game in '99 against San Francisco," said Blake of a 44-30 win in which Jeff Garcia's 437 yards lost to his four touchdown passes. "We must have had at least five touchdowns because Corey (Dillon) scored one. I remember that one because I had a lot of fun."
On this trip, Blake will trade the touchdowns for enough fun to get to 6-6.