HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. -- Better prepared for the inevitable question than the forthcoming contest, Boomer Esiason waved his copy of the game plan at the media horde advancing on his locker. "Got my plays today," he said. "Look at this."
And he opened the folder to a page where someone very close to the ailing quarterback of the New York Jets had printed, in red ink, the inscription:
It was Esiason's little joke on himself, an opportunity to transform a serious condition into a source of humor. Among those who joined in the laughter was the heir apparent, dressing nearby.
Actually, neither Esiason nor Glenn Foley is slated to start today when the Jets return to Giants Stadium after suffering one of the most humiliating defeats in club history. Coach Rich Kotite said that Bubby Brister, the journeyman quarterback who accompanied the coach from Philadelphia, would continue in the starting role despite a swollen thumb and an -- ahem -- inventive performance against the Carolina Panthers last weekend. Foley, who has thrown eight passes in his two years as a professional, will be the backup and Esiason, still troubled by the concussion he suffered in Buffalo on Oct. 8, again will be a spectator.
Ten days after he was knocked unconscious by All-Pro defensive end Bruce Smith, Esiason's body still hadn't recovered sufficiently for him to participate in Wednesday's practice. The man said doctors told him he was clear to resume normal activities. "But football games and practices are not normal," he noted. "I'm frustrated because my body is very tired. They say it's my brain telling my body to slow down. I feel lethargic. I have no desire to go run."
So, dressed in a sweat shirt and shorts, he stood on the sidelines at the Jets' complex with his arms crossed, watching Brister and Foley take snaps. Freeze that pose. There is a possibility that Esiason's homecoming may end in just such a fashion, with Boomer a bystander to yet another lost season.
His contract expires at the end of the year and there is reason to believe that by the time Esiason, 34, is ready to resume his quarterback duties, Kotite finally may have decided to turn the sputtering offense over to Foley. The Jets released their previous future hope, Jeff Blake, without giving him a chance to demonstrate his abilities and Blake now is the sixth-rated passer in the AFC. There may be no better time to see what Foley, whom Pete Carroll and the previous coaching staff preferred over Blake, can do. After compiling a 1-6 record that includes a mauling by an expansion team, the Jets have little left to lose.
"I understand the realities [of the situation]," Esiason said. "But my first concern is getting healthy. If when I do come back they're playing Foley, so be it. That's a decision the coaches will have to make. I can't accelerate the healing process to fight against it."
Esiason said he was told that the rate of recovery from such an accident for someone in a normal job ranged from 4-8 weeks. Because he was an athlete in otherwise superb condition, he said the term was reduced by half. Surveying his audience, he couldn't resist a jab. "They said if I was a reporter," he concluded, "it would take about 12 weeks."
Clearly, the man was not at wit's end. Nor did he wish to dwell on the potential implications of his protracted absence. His three seasons with the Jets have been marked by constant turmoil and diminishing returns. With three coaches and three offensive systems in three years as well as the death of the general manager who initiated the trade that brought him home from Cincinnati, it's fair to say his career in New York has been less than idyllic. Finishing up on the sidelines is not something he chooses to ponder at this time.
"I think it's too early to discuss," Esiason said. "I've said through the tough times and through the good times I've always wanted to be a Jet."
He doesn't know if the feeling is mutual, whether the franchise will want him beyond this year if Kotite decides to finally employ the "R" word and admit that the Jets are rebuilding. It was largely as a result of his association with Bruce Coslet that he is a Jet today and Coslet is ancient history by now, one of a legion of coaches who failed to overcome the organization's tendency to self-destruct. The real question, of course, is whether it makes any difference who starts at quarterback for a team that is bereft of talent at so many positions.
"To be honest," he said, "you could trade for Troy Aikman this Friday, put him in Sunday and have the same results. One guy is not going to make the difference. Even if you brought in Deion Sanders -- because he's apparently the one player who can win a Super Bowl by himself -- that ain't happening here. When you look at films, you see the same mistakes over and over."
Esiason didn't have to look at the films this week. He saw the fiasco against Carolina on television, which offered a new but not improved perspective of the team's problems. The Jets have become the NFL's version of the Keystone Kops, chasing opponents into the far end zone with madcap zeal. The shovel pass that Panthers linebacker Sam Mills intercepted and returned for a touchdown could have been the centerpiece of a Mack Sennett two-reeler.
"There's nothing worse for a player who hasn't played criticizing players who did play," the sidelined quarterback said. "I felt as bad Monday morning as I would have if I had played."
Actually worse, if you took his physical woes into consideration. "I'm just not there 100 percent," he said this week. But did he have advice for Foley when and if the second-year player was granted his first start?
"I'd say, 'Don't play so well, I want my job back,' " Esiason $H replied, glib as ever. "Nah, I wouldn't tell him that." But he did express concern for Foley's mental health if he walked into a situation like the one confronting the team right now. "You don't want to leave Glenn with a lasting impression of failure when he first gets on the football field."
Too many Jets already have been afflicted.