It's boom time again for Esiason QB turns back clock with resurgent Bengals

December 19, 1997|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Long after the time when most quarterbacks have crafted an unshakable past, Boomer Esiason has created an undeniable future.

Based on his performance of the past month for the Cincinnati Bengals, he could, if he wishes, resume the lifestyle of a starting quarterback in the NFL, complete with multimillion-dollar contract.

Or he could run a bootleg into the broadcast booth almost immediately as a loquacious commentator for one of the television networks -- with an attractive salary, as well.

The choice is his. Quarterback or commentator?

It is the question of the day in Cincinnati, where players and fans alike have rallied behind their matinee idol.

"I haven't made a decision one way or the other," Esiason said this week. "It's a question asked of me nonstop."

In his 14th NFL season, Esiason, 36, has become the league's renaissance man. In the past four weeks, he has revived Cincinnati's stagnant offense and resuscitated its moribund franchise.

He has thrown for 1,103 yards, eight touchdowns and three victories. Only Brett Favre of the Green Bay Packers has had a comparable four-game stretch among league quarterbacks.

It is as if Esiason turned back his body clock to 1988, when he was the NFL's MVP and took the Bengals to within a whisker of beating the San Francisco 49ers and Joe Montana in Super Bowl XXIII.

"Boomer's a heck of a football player," said coach Bruce Coslet, whose Bengals finish the season Sunday at home against the Ravens. "And he's playing as well as I've ever seen him play. He's always been a real good field general. But he's much more decisive and much more accurate than he ever was. Especially accurate."

Esiason's completion rate this season is 63.8 percent, well above his career average of 56.8 coming into 1997. His passer rating of 107.5 is two points better than NFL leader Steve Young of the 49ers, although Esiason will fall short of the necessary attempts to qualify for the league's passing title.

The one-time Maryland star is a master of the intermediate-range pass, and his recent success is due in part to the fact it's easier to throw on third-and-short than on third-and-long. Esiason is quick to credit rookie running back Corey Dillon with giving the Bengals their best balance on offense since the glory years of the late 1980s.

But everyone in the organization has an appreciation for what Esiason has meant to the Bengals' resurgence -- from team president Mike Brown down to the men in the trenches.

"I don't know what his thinking is," said veteran center Darrick Brilz of Esiason's future. "He has to get with his family on that. Personally, I'd like to see him come back and pick up where he left off."

Brown has said he is willing to rip up Esiason's contract for $750,000 next season -- a backup's salary -- to ensure that he returns. But even if the Bengals offer a starter's salary of, say, $2.5 million, Esiason still might be better off moving to television.

With TV contracts up after this season and rumored upheaval in the offing, Esiason's worth in the booth might never be greater.

"You look at it in one perspective," said Esiason's football agent, Jerrold Colton, "and he's playing tremendous football. He's shown he can still be a top quarterback in the league. [But] this may be the exact window of opportunity to launch his next career."

Colton said Esiason's other representative, Fred Fried, has held "ongoing" conversations with the networks the last several years about making the jump.

That was the direction Esiason's career was headed before he replaced struggling Jeff Blake as starter on Nov. 23 against Jacksonville. Two teams -- the New York Jets and Arizona Cardinals -- had turned him loose in the last two years. His 1996 season in Arizona lurched from the sublime (a marvelous 522-yard passing performance against the Washington Redskins) to the ridiculous (he was benched for Kent Graham and staged a brief walkout).

Esiason's torrid December run has placed new light on the determination of the Jets and Cardinals that he was washed up.

"When I left the Jets, they went 1-15," Esiason said. "I left the Cards and you see what they're doing [3-12]. The Jets were one of the worst offenses when I was there and got worse after I left. The Cards were in the mid-20s [offensive rankings] and now they're trying to work in a rookie quarterback

"The decisions they [the Jets and Cardinals] made concerning me probably weren't the right ones."

Esiason's decisions of late have all been correct. He distributes the ball like a point-guard in basketball, drawing all his offensive weapons into use. The biggest criticism of Esiason -- that his left arm is lame -- is a myth.

"He has a good arm," said Brilz. "It seems like he gets the ball wherever he needs to get it."

Esiason will deliver pointed messages to his teammates when necessary, too. There was the occasion when he scolded a young player who had spent considerable time on the inactive list for wrestling with one of the team's receivers after practice.

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