Saturday, December 6, 1997
Boomer better than ever

The Cincinnati Enquirer

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''It's not about how far you throw the ball. It's not about your running ability. It's about knowing the position, knowing what's expected of you, reading defenses . . .
- Boomer Esiason
Boomer Esiason has not found the Fountain of Youth, but the Wisdom of Age. What once was improvised is now instinct. What he has learned, he has retained.

The Cincinnati Bengals' renaissance quarterback is playing the finest football of his career, five years after he was shoved aside for the sake of David Klingler. Boomer has been a revelation, an inspiration, a magical stroll down Memory Lane and a joyful noise in the here-and-now.

He has been everything he once was, and maybe a little more. That hill he was alleged to be over has not led to a downslope, but another dramatic peak. The pigeonhole where the Bengals tried to put him has failed to confine his wondrous left wing. At the relatively advanced age of 36, Boomer Esiason has reminded us that a quarterback's most deadly weapon is still his brain.

''It's not about how far you throw the ball,'' he said after Thursday night's 41-14 trampling of the Tennessee Oilers. ''It's not about your running ability. It's about knowing the position, knowing what's expected of you, reading defenses . . .

''I know this offense. I know it in my sleep.''

For nearly a month now, Boomer Esiason has been a dream walking. He is 2-1 as the Bengals' starter, with another victory in relief of Jeff Blake. He has thrown nine touchdown passes against one interception, and Thursday raised his completion percentage to a dizzying, career-high 66.1 percent.

Never passed better

Because Esiason has never passed more precisely - not even in leading the Bengals to Super Bowl XXIII - one might imagine he had stumbled across some trade secret or swapped his soul for a tighter spiral.

But because this is football, however, the answers are not nearly so simple.

If Esiason is better now than he's ever been, it is at least partially attributable to his personal growth. A veteran quarterback develops an intuitive grasp of grand strategy, and comes to process on-the-field information like a Pentium II with shoulder pads. Still, his success or failure remains contingent on factors beyond his fingertips.

The best quarterbacks are typically those with reliable running backs and time to throw. Ken Anderson, now the Bengals' offensive coordinator, was as accurate as any passer of his era, but his statistics fluctuated with the talent level around him. Anderson's numbers improved dramatically after Anthony Munoz arrived to block his blind side in 1980.

''When you're getting hit a lot, sometimes you're just thinking, 'How do I get rid of it?' '' Anderson said Friday. ''But I think when the offense is diversified and you can run it a little bit, then all of the other things open up.''

Emergence of Dillon helps

The quarterback has yet to be born who was better on third down and eight than second-and-two, and the emergence of Corey Dillon has allowed Esiason the luxury to do much of his throwing in short-yardage situations. Conversely, Esiason's accuracy has helped expand Dillon's daylight.

''I feel I'm the same guy,'' Esiason said. ''But I have better players around me . . . This is my 14th year (in pro football) and it's almost like I got a new toy. I've got a running back who's a Ferrari and big diesels on the line . . . I can exploit a good running back as well as anyone.''

Better than most. Experience has taught Boomer Esiason what to look for on a football field, and age has not yet addled him.

''I warm him up and my hands are blister-red,'' Bengals coach Bruce Coslet said. ''I think his arm strength is pretty close to what it was. He used to be like a young, stud baseball pitcher who threw nothing but fastballs, and didn't take anything off to hit the corner.''

Esiason has since learned to change his speeds and is lately throwing more strikes than at any time in his life. He completed 20 out of 28 passes Thursday night - this despite several drops.

He has made it look easy. He has made it look like 1988.