- The Washington Times - Friday, November 8, 2002

OWINGS MILLS, Md. Maybe it's not exactly like going to prison without the bars, but playing pro football in Cincinnati is no Shangri-La.
Baltimore Ravens quarterback Jeff Blake is an authority on the subject. Blake spent six highly-productive seasons in Cincinnati (1994-1999), where he posted huge passing numbers, but never enjoyed a winning season.
In 1996, Blake led the Bengals to an 8-8 record. It's been downhill 7-9, 3-13, 4-12, 4-12, and 6-10 ever since for the "Bungles."
"It's tough playing in a situation where you're losing week in and week out, year after year after year," Blake said. "Going through something like that makes you a stronger person, a stronger man, a better father, a better husband, a better everything. I don't wish that on anybody. It's hard to go every year knowing that you might only win four or five games and be the ridicule of the league."
It's been more than a decade since the Bengals have posted a winning season. In 1990, Cincinnati finished 9-7 and grabbed an AFC wild-card berth. This Sunday, Blake goes against his former team at Ravens Stadium.
The Bengals (1-7) are still a laughingstock. Cincinnati picked up its first win of the season last Sunday when it crushed the expansion Houston Texans 38-3. The Bengals have been so bad the last three times they visited Baltimore that it was a Blake-to-Carl Pickens 67-yard touchdown pass in 1998 that marked last time the Bengals scored in Maryland. The Ravens have shut out the Bengals three straight times at home by a combined 75-0 score.
Blake, 31, said "the lucky ones" are those who can get out of Cincinnati and play elsewhere. Bengals owner Mike Brown, the son of Hall of Famer Paul Brown, is a notorious tightwad who won't spend the necessary money to make the Bengals competitive. Brown's scouting department is roughly one-third the size of most NFL teams. Brown refuses to pay his players large salaries. Therefore, the Bengals are never major shakers in free agency.
When the league negotiated its collective bargaining agreement with the players, the NFL established a minimum wage in part because the league feared the Bengals would pay their players below an acceptable standard.
"I played with a lot of those guys and I feel for them," Blake said. "A lot of them don't deserve to be in the situation they're in. I'm not going to sit here and laugh at that situation because I was in there at one time and it's not pretty."
Blake's good fortune came in April 1999. The Bengals drafted quarterback Akili Smith with the third-overall pick and Blake was expendable because he was a free agent. During his six seasons with the Bengals, Blake passed for 15,134 yards, 93 touchdowns with 62 interceptions and finished his career on the Ohio River as the team's third all-time leading passer behind Cincinnati legends Ken Anderson (32,838 yards, 197 touchdowns) and Boomer Esiason (27,149 yards, 187 touchdowns).
"I'll always have a high opinion of Jeff Blake, and I've coached against him before when I was at Pittsburgh and he was at Cincinnati," Bengals coach Dick LeBeau said. "I know he's capable of making a lot of plays."
The best play Blake said he made was to not let the door hit him on his way out of Cincinnati. When he was told the future was with Smith, Blake couldn't have been happier. He signed a lucrative free agent contract with the New Orleans Saints in 2000 and became their starter before suffering a foot injury in the Saints' 11th game that season.
"It's going to be tough for a guy like Takeo [Spikes], who will never have an opportunity to go to a team and be a playoff contender every year," Blake said. "They just let me go, they did me the favor. They drafted Akili in the first round and it was like, 'OK, we want Akili to be our quarterback, you're outta here.' It was fine with me. I was a free agent and signed a big contract with New Orleans and had a great time."
When the Bengals were looking for a quarterback last summer, they didn't even bother looking Blake's way. Blake was an available free agent but he wasn't heading back to Cincy. The Bengals signed head-banger Gus Frerotte to a one-year deal in an attempt to solve their quarterback problems during the offseason.
Other Bengals failures are their draft picks. The Bengals start 15 of 22 players taken in the first three rounds of the draft, including seven first-round picks.
Even Ravens coach Brian Billick won't speculate on the yearly disaster happening with his AFC North rivals. "I've got enough concerns with my group to try and straighten out anybody else's organization," Billick said.

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