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4 Cincinnati Bengals On a team with more than its share of woes, a quarterback controversy--Jeff Blake or Neil O'Donnell?--threatens further turmoil

If there's one NFL team that really doesn't need a quarterback
controversy, it's Cincinnati. The Bengals are--apologies to
Robert Downey Jr.--the Robert Downey Jr. of pro football. They
look O.K. on film. They even put on a good show every so often.
Underneath, however, lie some serious issues.

Cincinnati's top linebacker, James Francis, was booted from a
spring minicamp after weighing in at 275 pounds, and coach Bruce
Coslet told him to shed some pounds; Francis reported to
training weighing 275 pounds. Rookie linebacker Takeo Spikes was
involved in two scrapes on his first day of practice with the
club. Punter Lee Johnson and special teams coach Al Roberts
don't get along.

Nothing, however, can divide a team faster than a quarterback
controversy. In his four seasons with the Bengals, Jeff Blake
has seen the highs (21 wins as a starter) and, more often, the
lows (31 losses). He has 74 touchdown passes and 48
interceptions. He still hurls those breathtaking, Daryle
Lamonica-style bombs. "I've been comfortable with Blake for the
last three years," says Carl Pickens, Cincy's top wideout.
"Jeff's a helluva quarterback--he makes plays. He can scramble,
he can run, he can throw. We need that. Maybe a lot of people
don't see how good he is. But guys on this team, they know."

Guys do. Coaches don't. Blake should begin the season as
Coslet's starter, but the odds of his holding the job are
somewhere between none and none. Former Jet Neil O'Donnell, who
signed as a free agent in July, has not only taken a team to a
Super Bowl and thrown with amazing accuracy during his
eight-year career, but he also was the recipient of a deal that
will pay him $5.25 million this year and $12 million over the
following three seasons. (Blake's average annual salary is just
under $3 million.)

Question: How many backup quarterbacks made $5.25 million last

Answer: None.

This--surprise!--does not leave Blake smiling. "I'm definitely
pissed," he says. "I was mad when they signed [Neil]. Why
wouldn't I be? But the only thing that matters is winning. I had
28 touchdown passes and went to the Pro Bowl three years ago,
but we didn't win any games. Troy Aikman has never thrown many
touchdown passes, but he's won Super Bowls. So what can I say? I
haven't won."

Last season, after quarterbacking the Bengals to a 3-8 start,
Blake was benched. He completed 58% of his passes, but he had
almost as many interceptions (seven) as touchdown passes
(eight), and he was sacked 39 times. Blake was replaced by the
now retired Boomer Esiason, who finished with a 4-1 run. So what
if Esiason's success coincided with Corey Dillon's replacing the
impotent Ki-Jana Carter as the starting running back? So what if
the line was banged up for most of Blake's starts?

Now comes what seems like a last stand. Blake, who worked with a
personal trainer this off-season, reported to camp in amazing
shape, looking more like a linebacker than a quarterback. He
threw the ball extremely well, with an improved short touch.

Blake has a bold, confident presence in the huddle, one this
collection of misfits could use. O'Donnell, while perhaps more
skilled, was never popular in New York, in part because of his
lack of charisma. He, like Blake, has put up some solid numbers
(17 TD passes, seven interceptions last year), but he is as
inspiring as Mr. Rogers. Teammates refuse to take sides, but many
believe Blake has gotten a bad rap--that the coaching staff puts
too much blame on him, his disheartening streakiness

Pickens and Darnay Scott are as dangerous a receiving duo as
you'll find. And Dillon, who burst on the scene with 1,129
rushing yards (including an NFL rookie-record 246 in a December
win over the Oilers), has given Cincinnati a ground game. The
defense, meanwhile, has excelled in stopping absolutely no one.
In hopes of infusing the unit with new life and veteran
maturity, the Bengals brought in strong safety Myron Bell from
the Steelers, cornerback Thomas Randolph from the Giants and
defensive ends Michael Bankston and Clyde Simmons, late of the
Cardinals and the Jaguars, respectively.

And, of course, they brought in O'Donnell, creating a situation
that Coslet is dealing with gingerly. "I wouldn't call it a
quarterback controversy," he says. "It's a competition." --J.P.

COLOR PHOTO: MIKE DEHOOG/TDP EMBATTLED Only three years after leading the AFC in touchdown passes and completions, Blake is fighting for his job. [Jeff Blake in game]

B/W PHOTO: DAVID COYLE Simmons [Clyde Simmons]


13 at Detroit
27 at Baltimore
18 at Tennessee
25 at Oakland
8 at Jacksonville
15 at Minnesota
13 at Indianapolis
20 at Pittsburgh

Fast Facts

1997 Record 7-9 (4th in AFC Central) NFL rank (rush/pass/total):
offense 9/13/10; defense 29/21/28

1998 Schedule strength NFL rank: 3 (tie) Opponents' 1997
winning percentage: .543 Games against playoff teams: 9

I'll Be Home for Christmas

Bengals center Darrick Brilz has played in 159 regular-season
games, more than any other active player who has never appeared
in an NFL playoff game. The 34-year-old Brilz is still more than
two full seasons shy of the alltime record in this category, held
by Sam Baker, who played 17 years for four teams without making
it to the postseason.

Active leaders Years Games Alltime leaders Years Games
Darrick Brilz, C 1987-97 159 Sam Baker, K 1953-69 195
Greg Davis, K 1987-97 153 Ernie McMillan, T 1961-75 190
Ken Harvey, LB 1988-97 153 Lance Smith, G 1985-96 182
Eric Hill, LB 1989-97 133 Norm Snead, QB 1961-76 178
Chris Warren, RB 1990-97 123 Ernie Stautner, DT 1950-63 173

Inside Slant

Outside linebacker James Francis had 3 1/2 sacks and one
interception in '97, but his disdain for off-season workouts is
growing tiresome. The Bengals used their third-round pick on a
possible successor, Northeast Louisiana's Steve Foley, who had
23 1/2 sacks in his last two seasons.... They're also excited
about the addition of 13-year veteran defensive end Clyde
Simmons, who ranks 11th on the NFL's alltime sack chart with
109--and has a solid work ethic. Says one club official, "We're
going more for guys like that now, instead of those guys who it
looks like football doesn't mean that much to."... Last year's
1-7 start continued a disturbing trend for the Bengals, who in
recent years have started 0-8 ('91), 0-10 ('93), 0-8 ('94) and
1-6 ('96).... Though neither has made the Pro Bowl, wideout
Darnay Scott and defensive end John Copeland were rewarded in
the off-season with five-year, $15 million contracts.

Projected Lineup With 1997 statistics

Coach: Bruce Coslet
Third season with Bengals (40-49 in NFL)

Offensive Backs PVR*

QB Jeff Blake 109[PVR*] 317 att. 184 comp. 58.0%
2,125 yds. 8 TDs 7int. 77.6 rtg.

RB Corey Dillon 16[PVR*] 233 att. 1,129 yds. 4.8
avg. 27 rec. 259 yds. 9.6 avg. 10 TDs

FB Brian Milne 386[PVR*] 13 att. 32 yds. 2.5 avg.
23 rec. 138 yds. 6.0 avg. 2 TDs

RB Ki-Jana Carter 244[PVR*] 128 att. 464 yds. 3.6
avg. 21 rec. 157 yds. 7.5 avg. 7 TDs

Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen

WR Carl Pickens 54[PVR*] 52 rec. 695 yds. 5 TDs
WR Darnay Scott 128[PVR*] 54 rec. 797 yds. 5 TDs
WR James Hundon 189[PVR*] 16 rec. 285 yds. 2 TDs
TE Tony McGee 122[PVR*] 34 rec. 414 yds. 6 TDs
K Doug Pelfrey 234[PVR*] 41/43 XPs 12/16 FGs 77 pts.
PR Greg Myers 463[PVR*] 26 ret. 7.7 avg. 0 TDs
KR Eric Bieniemy 281[PVR*] 34 ret. 23.2 avg. 1 TD
LT Kevin Sargent 6'6" 295 lbs. 10 games 8 starts
LG Rich Braham 6'4" 302 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
C Darrick Brilz 6'3" 295 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RG Ken Blackman 6'6" 315 lbs. 13 games 13 starts
RT Willie Anderson 6'5" 335 lbs. 16 games 16 starts


LE Michael Bankston[N] 95 tackles 2 sacks
NT Kimo Von Oelhoffen 42 tackles 0 sacks
RE Clyde Simmons[N] 40 tackles 8 1/2 sacks
OLB James Francis 57 tackles 3 1/2 sacks
ILB Tom Tumulty 56 tackles 1 sack
ILB Takeo Spikes (R)[N] 136 tackles 2 sacks
OLB Reinard Wilson 24 tackles 3 sacks
CB Ashley Ambrose 59 tackles 3 int.
SS Sam Shade 96 tackles 4 sacks
FS Greg Myers 82 tackles 1 int.
CB Thomas Randolph[N] 33 tackles 1 int.
P Lee Johnson 81 punts 42.9 avg.

[N]New acquisition (R) Rookie (statistics for final college
year) *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 88)