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.
Emory's evening symposia have paid off in a very big way, because Jeff is not surprised by anything that a defense throws his way. Before Sunday's game Coslet, now Cincinnati's offensive coordinator, said, "In three weeks Jeff has faced three entirely different defenses. In Dallas he played a man-zone team with great team speed. In Seattle he played a strict zone team. In Houston it was blitz city—he was blitzed on three out of every four downs. I'm watching him handle this and make no mistakes, and I say to myself, This is amazing. Is this a dream?"
At an even six feet, Blake is about as short as most NFL teams want a quarterback to be (though height may be yet another area in which blacks are held to a more rigorous standard than whites). But he has thrown 147 passes for the Bengals and has had just one batted down.
As far as a tendency to scramble goes, Blake would be killed playing behind the porous Bengal line were it not for his mobility. The consistent ability to sense the rush and avoid it by scrambling has been crucial to his success. "The system is so hung up on this prototype NFL quarterback thing," Blake says. "You're supposed to drop back, stay in the pocket, don't move unless you're about to be sacked. Ridiculous. A quarterback has to be spontaneous. Look at Steve Young. And yet black quarterbacks are criticized for that. When I got to Cincinnati, the media asked me, 'Are you a scrambler?' I said, 'Did you ask Klingler that question?' It's such a stereotype."
Blake thinks that while NFL teams will give a white quarterback like Heath Shuler, the Washington Redskins' first-round draft pick, four or five years to develop, they will not make the same allowances for a black quarterback. Blake points to Marvin Graves, a star at Syracuse who is roughly the same size as Shuler, who is now playing for the Toronto Argonauts in the CFL. "What is the difference between Marvin Graves and Heath Shuler?" he says. "Opportunity. You give me any 10 football events and put Marvin Graves and Heath Shuler against each other to compete, and let's see who wins. When I came out of college the CFL wanted me, but I felt that would be like quitting. What I can do now is play my butt off and make it easier for the next guy to have a shot."
Blake is going a long way toward accomplishing that. On Sunday he nearly led Cincinnati to its first three-game winning streak in four years. With Cincinnati trailing 17-13 with 1:29 left in the game, Blake lofted one of his rainbow bombs for wideout Darnay Scott at the Colt 15. The pass went right through Scott's hands. Four plays later, Blake launched another one for Scott at the goal line. Cornerback Ray Buchanan pushed Scott away with his right arm, sending the receiver off-balance, and made the interception—only the second Blake has thrown in 147 attempts this season.
After the Bengals' game against Dallas, Cowboy linebacker Dixon Edwards said, "Wait till he gets some experience. He's going to kick some tail. I feel sorry for the team they play next." That was the Seattle Seahawks, whom Blake burned with 31 completions on 43 attempts for 387 yards, as Cincinnati won 20-17 in overtime. Then to thunderous ovations at Riverfront he roughed up the Houston Oilers, twice returning to the game after hurting his ankle, and leading the Bengals to 10 points in the final four minutes of a 34—31 victory. "Football players need to have fun to be good," says Scott, a rookie. "You can't just show up with talent and be good. Jeff's lifted this whole team by himself."
"People come up to me, shocked at how I've done," Blake said last week at his town-house apartment in Fort Wright, Ky. "They say, 'You're playing like a five-or six-year veteran.' Well, I have played games in my mind, over and over. I played the Houston Oilers five times before I ever played them on the field. You watch so much film that nothing that [defensive end] Ray Childress or [cornerback] Cris Dishman or [linebacker] Micheal Barrow does surprises you." In the game against the Oilers, Blake undressed Dishman, an All-Pro. Carl Pickens, who was covered most of the day by Dishman, caught 11 passes for 188 yards and three touchdowns.
Blake is currently making the NFL minimum for a third-year veteran of $162,000, and his contract expires after the season. The Bengals will most likely sign him to a rich long-term deal and hand him the starting job for good.
One night last week Blake was sitting in his living room, resting his ankle, when his wife, Lewanna, and his two children, son Emory and daughter Torre, returned home from a chore that the Blake family never before had to contend with. "I went to the phone company," Lewanna said, "to change the number. Every time I'd hang it up, it would start ringing again."
The call has finally come for Jeff Blake.
DAVID LIAM KYLE
When Blake (8) had time to work against Indianapolis, he zeroed in on Pickens, who had six catches.
DAVID LIAM KYLE
While scouts didn't take to Blake's ramblin' ways at East Carolina (left), Cincinnati is smitten.
[See caption above.]
Emory, here with mom Lewanna and sis Torre, takes his hat off to the job Dad has done since Oct. 30.