QB or not QB? For Blake, that's the question; Pending free agent on 'roller coaster' for past 2 Bengals seasons


As if being 1-9 and having a coach fighting for his job aren't enough hardships, the Cincinnati Bengals can also throw into the mix a disgruntled starting quarterback who is counting the weeks until free agency.

That would be Jeff Blake, who regained his job the past two games after losing it to rookie Akili Smith in the fifth week.

"I've been on a roller coaster the last two years, and I'm still here for some reason," said Blake, who becomes a free agent at the end of this season.

Is he looking to stay in Cincinnati?

"I got six weeks left, then I'll be a free agent," Blake said.

Do they want him back in Cincinnati?

"I'd love to have him back," said Bengals coach Bruce Coslet, who is 18-33 since taking over the club in 1996. "I don't know if that is going to be possible. He'll be a free agent, and we paid Akili Smith all this money."

So for now, Blake is a lame-duck quarterback preparing to face the league's co-No. 1 defense in the Ravens on Sunday. Compile the team's losing record with going from being the starting quarterback in the 1996 Pro Bowl to backing up a rookie this season, and Blake's attitude becomes more understandable.

Blake threw for 3,822 yards, 28 touchdowns and 17 interceptions during the 1995 season for the Bengals. He led the AFC in touchdown passes and was second to John Elway in yardage.

He was the No. 2 vote-getter at quarterback behind Dan Marino, who missed the Pro Bowl because of injury.

That is not something Blake is reminiscing about now.

"Every week is a proving ground for me," Blake said. "Because if it wasn't, then I wouldn't be going through this roller coaster thing I've been going through. Every week I have to prove myself regardless of Pro Bowls, regardless of the touchdown/interception ratio I have, regardless of the things I've done."

Now he is proving himself to other teams in the league. It is a chance Blake probably would not have had if Smith did not go down with turf toe three weeks ago. Since then, Blake completed 18 of 32 passes for 236 yards and a touchdown last week against Tennessee, and passed for 287 yards and a touchdown the previous week against Seattle.

Blake has played himself in and out of the starting role since that Pro Bowl year. He started all 16 games in 1996, passing for 3,624 yards, with 24 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.

But the next season, Blake lost his job to Boomer Esiason. He stayed on the bench for most of last season behind Neil O'Donnell. He entered this season the No. 1 quarterback, but the Bengals scored 10 or less points in three of their first four games, prompting the benching.

The biggest problem Coslet said Blake has had during the past few seasons and this year is consistency. Part of the blame, however, falls on the offensive line.

"We're starting four guys that we didn't start last year on our offensive line," Coslet said. "Our line has not come together."

Still, Blake was not making the plays in those first four starts that he had in the past.

"We weren't scoring, we weren't getting it done, and we wanted to see if [Smith] could spark the offense," Coslet said. "That's moot now because he's hurt.

"Blake has done all right. He's made some plays, but he's missed on some plays, too. I think Jeff is probably just like everyone else on our team, a little inconsistent.

"He can only do so much. The offensive line has to play better. We have to get a running game to complement Jeff so we can do our play action."

Blake has the weapons that have made him successful in the past. Running back Corey Dillon is coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, and he still has Pro-Bowl receiver Carl Pickens and Darnay Scott, who have been with him his whole time in Cincinnati.

Those four have made big plays in the past. So what's the difference this season? "I haven't been on the field," Blake said.

Actually, he has been on the field for six games.

"We've had a lot of penalties, too," said Blake, who spent two seasons with the Jets before going to Cincinnati. "That's been bringing us back. I throw a touchdown to Darnay, or we have a big play on a screen pass, we get called for holding. We've made big plays, but they never get recorded because of penalties."

As for Blake's effectiveness, Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis said he is still someone who could hurt the team.

"You have to be aware of where he is all the time," Lewis said. "He's got an excellent arm. Obviously, he's been in the offense for five or six years now. He gets out of that pocket and can throw the ball 65 yards down the field."

Next for Ravens

Opponent: Cincinnati Bengals

Site: Cinergy Field, Cincinnati

When: Sunday, 4: 05 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)

Line: Ravens by 5 1/2

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