Saturday, April 5, 1997
With Boomer, Bengals are better

BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Even if he never leaves the bench, Boomer Esiason makes the Cincinnati Bengals better.

He makes their quarterback position less precarious, and their locker room more lively. He brings Super Bowl seasoning to a team still striving for wild-card credibility. He can provide a lot of leadership, as long as he is willing to accept a subordinate role.

The only reservation anyone should have about Boomer Esiason as a backup quarterback is whether he can play that part without lusting after the lead. Much as the Bengals will benefit from an experienced No. 2 quarterback, they can not afford any debate over who deserves to be No. 1.

Two weeks ago, when Bengals coach Bruce Coslet asked Esiason if he were ready for a career in the reserves, Boomer uncharacteristically did not blurt out an answer. He has since come to terms with his place vis-a-vis Bengals starter Jeff Blake, and he said all the appropriate things at Spinney Field Friday afternoon.

''I'm basically insurance right now,'' he said. ''That's what it comes down to. And I don't mind being an insurance policy. It just means I don't get hit quite as much.''

Can quarterbacks co-exist?

We believe Boomer to be sincere, but we know him to be intensely competitive. We want to see what happens the next time Blake throws three interceptions and the crowd starts clamoring for a change. We want to see how Blake responds if Boomer succeeds. We want to know if two prima donnas can co-exist at one position.

''I know exactly how (Jeff) feels,'' Coslet said. ''He would welcome Boomer with open arms ... This is not a challenge for Blake at all. Blake is the starter, period. It wouldn't be a distraction in anybody's mind ...

''He (Esiason) would not be coming in here competing for a starting job. Jeff has proven himself. He is the starter. And if Blake has two or three bad games in a row, he's still the starter. That's just the way it is. He's earned that. I don't say that lightly when I say that about people.''

Coslet is not a coach who wants his players to get too comfortable. When the Bengals obtained running back Garrison Hearst last summer - creating a clear threat to Ki-Jana Carter's preeminence - Coslet reacted coldly to concerns about Carter's mindset. He was interested in winning, he said, and he wasn't going to let anyone's ego get in the way of that goal.

The Bengals head coach continues to concentrate on the bottom line, but he also recognizes that a quarterback's attitude can be a liability as easily as it can be an asset. He wants Jeff Blake to come to training camp with the confidence of a proven star, and not the anxiety of a starter being squeezed.

''There was no hidden agenda or anything,'' Coslet said. ''I told him (Esiason) this is how it would be. We talked about the scenarios of when he would play - it would be if we were way ahead, or way behind or Jeff goes down. That would be it.''

Necessary insurance

Jeff Blake does not normally allow his backups much opportunity for advancement. Since gaining command of the Bengals offense in 1994, he has started 41 straight games. Last season, Blake called the signals on 97.3 percent of the Bengals offensive snaps (1059 out of 1088).

Yet Blake's remarkable durability runs contrary to the trend at his perilous position. Battlefield promotions to backup quarterbacks were so common last season that 16 NFL teams had at least 100 passes thrown by non-regulars.

''We've really been rolling the dice,'' Coslet said. ''The thing that would kill us is if Jeff would go down and we don't have any experience to put in there.''

Boomer Esiason has been brought in to address this problem, and it does not necessarily follow that he will create morale problems. He and Blake have been friends since they were teammates under Coslet with the New York Jets.

''Everything about that is a positive,'' Coslet said. ''If it was some guy that Jeff didn't know and thought of as a threat, well yeah, he's going to be worried. But it's not that. He knows him, and he knows he's no threat.''

Jeff Blake has absolutely nothing to fear. Until further notice.

DUST OFF NO. 7
SULLIVAN ARCHIVE