Bengals call option at QB Third-stringer Justin to replace O'Donnell

November 19, 1998|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

It worked for the San Diego Chargers last week, so the Cincinnati Bengals are ready to try the same tactic against the Ravens on Sunday.

The Chargers benched their starting quarterback, rookie Ryan Leaf, for Craig Whelihan, who had started -- and lost -- just seven NFL games, and he managed to edge the Ravens, 14-13, last Sunday.

Now the Bengals are benching their starter, veteran Neil O'Donnell, for another quarterback who has started only seven NFL games in his career -- Paul Justin.

But that's where the similarities end.

Justin is not the inexperienced quarterback Whelihan was.

While Whelihan's only starts were the last seven games of last season, Justin is a veteran of Arena Football, was a World Bowl MVP and got his first NFL start in 1995 for the Colts when Ted Marchibroda was the coach.

Last year when Jim Harbaugh was injured, he passed for 340 yards and a touchdown to lead the Colts to a 41-38 stunner over the Green Bay Packers.

"Paul is a polished NFL quarterback," Harbaugh said yesterday.

Justin, 30, was traded to the Bengals at the end of last season because the Colts were clearing the deck for the arrival of Peyton Manning.

Justin was supposed to battle Jeff Blake for the starting job until O'Donnell was waived by the Jets and signed with the Bengals.

Justin found himself the third-stringer until he did a good job in relief against Jacksonville two weeks ago and got the nod from coach Bruce Coslet for this game.

"He's an experienced guy who's been around. It's not like we're putting somebody real green in there," Coslet said.

It remains to be seen what this move means to the future of O'Donnell and Blake in Cincinnati.

"We'll see how it goes," Coslet said.

Explaining how Justin leaped over Blake, Coslet said, "He's [Blake] had his opportunities and the results haven't been there. It's just a results-oriented decision."

This is probably Justin's chance to impress Coslet and win the job because it's not a panic move by a lame-duck coach.

Even though the Bengals are 2-8, Mike Brown, the president of the team, said that Coslet will be back next year.

"People get frustrated and you hear a cascade of complaints. There's always a temptation to start fresh. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. I remember not so long ago, [Denver coach] Mike Shanahan got fired [in Oakland]," Brown said.

Brown's right about one thing. The fans are frustrated. There have been banners flown over the team's practice facility in recent weeks calling for Brown to step down, for Coslet to be fired and for offensive coordinator Kenny Anderson to be replaced.

Coslet can even joke about the banners.

"We told Carl Pickens [the wide receiver who has had his differences with the coach] to stop paying for those helicopters. You've got to have a thick skin in this league," Coslet said. Coslet wasn't happy about the one calling for Anderson's head.

"Blame me," Coslet said.

L If the Justin move doesn't work, Coslet will get more blame.

With Pickens and Darnay Scott at the receiver slots and Corey Dillon at running back, the Bengals would seem to have the makings of a good offense.

Pickens is second in the AFC with 53 catches and third in receiving yards with 702; Dillon is fourth in rushing with 846 yards. Even O'Donnell is fourth in the quarterback ratings at 93.6.

Yet they're not much more effective than the Ravens on offense. They're 20th in offensive yardage and the Ravens are 21st, although the Ravens beat the Bengals, 31-24, in the first meeting.

Enter Justin.

He's not going to tiptoe into the huddle. He's taking charge.

"I'm an intense quarterback," he said. "I don't put up with too much stuff. If you don't want to follow, get off the field. If you want to play football, stay out there and play," he said.

Harbaugh said: "He's as feisty as they get. He's a fighter, a heck of a competitor. I've seen him throw a pass, get hit and as he's falling to the ground, he's getting in a shot at the defensive lineman. He's a player's player."

Justin started for three years at Arizona State before being drafted on the seventh round by Chicago in 1991. His career then almost ended before it began.

Mike Ditka was the Bears' coach and Justin would seem to be his kind of guy, but he never caught Ditka's eye. "Maybe he never really got to know him," Harbaugh said.

Justin spent a year on the practice squad before being released, sat out a year and was ready to quit football.

It was a stint with the Arizona Rattlers of Arena Football in 1993 that made the game fun for him again and made him want to return to the NFL. He spent 1994 on the Colts' practice squad, passed for 435 yards in the World Bowl title game in the spring of 1995 and spent the last three years backing up Harbaugh.

"It means a lot," Justin said. "I don't ever take it for granted anymore. Since '95, it's happened like that. You have a start in the middle of the season and you've got to be ready."

Now he'll duel Harbaugh on Sunday in a game that's meaningless in the standings, but means a lot to the future of both quarterbacks. Both want to show they should be a part of the future of their current franchises.

Bengals at a glance

Last game: Lost to Minnesota, 24-3.

Last meeting with Ravens: Lost, 31-24, in Baltimore on Sept. 27.

Who's hot: Despite the lack of productivity by the offense, wide receiver Carl Pickens still ranks second in the AFC in catches with 53, averaging 13.2 yards per reception.

Who's not: The Bengals' offense. Cincinnati has scored 14 or fewer points in four of its last five games while recently benched QB Neil O'Donnell was reduced to throwing dump-off passes to running backs half of the time. Last week against the Vikings, Cincinnati managed just three yards per play -- the Bengals' worst output of the season.

Pub Date: 11/19/98

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