Esiason loves his role as a QB Relishes his days in Cincinnati sun

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CINCINNATI -- His sports car is beautiful, a black Mercedes two-seater with a gray interior. The leather upholstery feels extremely expensive. Boomer Esiason pushes a button on the --board and the top opens up to let in bright sun and blue sky.

"Got to put the top down today," Esiason says.

Of course. It's the Monday after the Cincinnati Bengals' 25-20, fourth-quarter, comeback win over the New York Jets in the season opener, a good day for the familiar, bright-blond-haired quarterback to be seen in Cincinnati.

At the restaurant Esiason has chosen for lunch, a fern bar in a yuppie section of town called Mount Adams, customers walk by the table every five or 10 minutes to tell him, "Good game," or to ask for an autograph. He obliges with a smile. The restaurant manager offers to move him to a private dining room, but Esiason says, "No problem. We're fine here."

There are several contenders for the role of successor to the San Francisco 49ers' Joe Montana as the National Football League's next great quarterback: Esiason, Dan Marino, John Elway, Randall Cunningham. Lately, the Los Angeles Rams' Jim Everett has been fitted for the label by several publications. Esiason and the Bengals (3-1) are scheduled to match firepower with Everett and his slow-starting Rams (1-2) today in Anaheim, Calif.

But this much is certain. No one loves being an NFL quarterback more than Boomer Esiason. He lives and breathes the role as if he were the creation of a popular novelist. He even looks back on the 1987 strike season, when he was vilified in Cincinnati for his million-dollar salary and his prominent role on the picket line, as part of his job preparation. The experience helped him develop the necessary callouses to withstand the public criticism that comes with the territory.

It also made him appreciate the upside that much more, and there has been a substantial upside, including national commercials for underwear and diet soda, since he took the Bengals to the Super Bowl at the end of the 1988 season. Last year, they were a puzzling 8-8 after going 5-1 in the American Football Conference Central but losing home games to poor Indianapolis Colts and Seattle Seahawks teams. Esiason still led the AFC in passing for the second straight year, and this season, he has predicted the Bengals will be in Tampa, Fla., for Super Bowl XXV.

"If I didn't feel like that, why be here?" Esiason says of his prediction. "People in Cincinnati gave us a grace period last year because of the year before, but they're expecting a lot this season. It's a very proud city. They don't let just anybody in. You've got to pay your dues before they let you in."

Dues paid, Esiason relishes these days in the Cincinnati sun. The fans booed during the Jets game when he threw a pass at a receiver's feet, booed when the Bengals left the field trailing at halftime. But he won them over. "The fans don't always understand," Esiason said. "I threw that ball away because a linebacker would have intercepted it if I'd tried to complete it. Then, they really would have booed."

The boos and the criticism on the radio talk shows have become just part of the challenge, and Esiason always is ready for a challenge. So many quarterbacks work hard at maintaining a poker face, keeping their emotions under wraps. Not Boomer. His high school coach , Sal Ciampi, told him always to play with emotion and intensity, to let it come from the heart.

That's his style through and through, and it's what makes him such a volatile, effective leader. "I don't think I know how to play football any other way," Esiason said. "You have to let your emotions flow. This is a game of spontaneous reactions. They make a move, you react. The ones who can think on their feet quick enough and let their athleticism and ability play are the ones who are going to be successful.

"Football sense is something you're born with. They can teach you the right footwork or whatever, but you have to feel it. You have to make it happen."

Ask him to compare quarterbacks, Esiason will play that game. He admits he watches his peers around the league closely. Cunningham and Elway he admires for their mobility; Jim Kelly he likes for his toughness. Marino's arm and football savvy are qualities Esiason appreciates, and Bernie Kosar's mental approach. He admires Everett's size and arm strength and describes Bubby Brister's fiery personality as the kind that can lift a team.

A sparkle comes into Esiason's eyes as he adds, "I think I'm a combination of all of them." With a laugh, he says, "Just kidding." But you get the feeling Esiason thinks deep down there's some truth to that.

Esiason acknowledges Montana as the best quarterback playing now because of his four Super Bowl rings and because he's such a meticulous technician. "But you have to give John Elway a lot of credit, because his team hasn't had the defense in the past," Esiason said. "Everybody gives him a bad rap for losing the Super Bowl, but he's been there three times when the rest of us were sitting home.

"Honestly, it doesn't matter how people rate us. I know where I belong. I belong in Cincinnati with a great offense. Our team has been in the top five in the league [offensive statistics] every year since I've been here."

Esiason is quick to say quarterbacks are as good as their supporting casts. The Bengals have as talented a group of skill players as anyone in the league and an offensive line Esiason says is "as big as the Great Wall of China." Coach Sam Wyche's offensive system is designed to spread the ball around to all those players and to allow Esiason to maximize his rollout ability and ballhandling skills.

The no-huddle attack invented by Wyche adds another level of complexity. In his seventh year in the league, Esiason not only has considerable input to the game plan but also has significant play-calling responsibility.

"The coaches quietly have packaged every play [they send in] with another play, and they allow me to change plays at the line of scrimmage," Esiason said. "Each year, it gets more mental for me. You can't imagine the variables that go into a game. It all falls right in this lap. I wouldn't want it any other way."

As he describes everything that goes into calling a play knowing the right formation, whether it's strong right or left, whether it will work against a particular defense, which group of offensive players is in the game, etc. it becomes clear how much Esiason loves being at the controls, pushing the right buttons. He almost pities the players whose job it is to stop the Bengals.

"Defensive players," Esiason says with a shake of his head. "Some are bright, but some. . . That's why they're on defense."

One last laugh and the luncheon seminar on quarterbacking draws to a close. As he departs to give a motivational speech to a group of local salesmen, Esiason is told he should be given as much consideration as Everett as the NFL's next great quarterback. Waving as he drives off, top down, into the sunset, Boomer says, "Don't worry, I'm going to make you look good."

You've gotta love it.

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