Boomer Esiason should come back because there is still work to be done and he is the man to do it. He should come back because the Cincinnati Bengals need him, and because he is at heart a team guy. He should come back because pro football is more fleeting, more exhilarating and more satisfying than exchanging bon mots with Al Michaels.
The broadcast booth beckons, but it will wait. What Esiason has now is better, richer, and more of a rush than any of his alternatives. He is 36 years old, and just now reaching his peak as a player.
How could he suddenly abandon what he has spent a lifetime trying to achieve? How could he walk away when the crowd is still chanting his name? Who is he trying to kid?
''I was just thinking how great it was to have an opportunity to play,'' Esiason said Sunday afternoon. ''Just how special it is to play. Even when you're not playing well, or on top of your game, the fact that you are playing is something to behold.''
Esiason has a decision to make before next season, but all the leading indicators suggest football is still too special for him to forsake. He threw two more touchdown passes in the Bengals' 16-14 victory over the Baltimore Ravens Sunday, finishing the season with four victories in five starts and the highest quarterback rating ever compiled by a Cincinnati starting quarterback (106.9).
Maybe it was a mirage. Maybe there isn't enough left of the Boomer Esiason we've seen these last five weeks to sustain another season in the National Football League. But when an athlete performs as this one has, the tendency is to talk of resurrection rather than retirement. When the athlete in question is as competitive as Boomer Esiason, the playoffs are sure to be a greater incentive than the pension.
There are other considerations, of course. Esiason's family has remained in New York during his second coming in Cincinnati, and his separation anxiety is compounded because his son continues to suffer from cystic fibrosis. Boomer Esiason's alternatives outside of playing are more plentiful than those of most players. His desire for more dollars and - or additional adulation is almost irrelevant.
Esiason's son Gunnar, who has cyctic fibrosis, will figure in Esiason's decision.
(Gary Landers photo)
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Yet Esiason's physical condition belies his age, and his football goals are as yet unfulfilled. He is still 34 seconds short of a Super Bowl championship, and a couple of strong seasons away from serious consideration for a bust in Canton. Much as Esiason has relished this last month in the lineup, leading an eliminated team to a respectable finish is not nearly as stimulating as starting a season with everything at stake.
''I think he should play at least two more years,'' said Bengals receiver Darnay Scott, recipient of a 77-yard touchdown pass Sunday. ''He knows what he's doing.''
''Boomer has great leadership qualities,'' said Bengals center Darrick Brilz. ''He's got an intangible on the field that's hard to describe. He's getting up there in age, but so are (Dan) Marino and (John) Elway.''
Bottom line: The Bengals know Boomer is their best chance at being competitive in 1998. Management has lost confidence in Jeff Blake, and no one has any appetite for starting from scratch with some rookie or retread.
Esiason insisted Sunday he was not being coy as a negotiating tactic, and it was easy to believe him. His numbers give him all the leverage he should ever need. If Bengals President Mike Brown doesn't close this deal, he invites not only a backlash, but a boycott.
''I don't think that anyone is in the position to lobby Boomer,'' Bengals coach Bruce Coslet said Sunday. ''I would obviously like to have him back . . . (and) we have talked around the issue. Mike (Brown) and Boomer have talked around the issue. It's going to be up to Boomer. He has been his own man for quite some time. It is going to be a family decision.''
Sure enough, when Esiason was pressed on his plans after the game, he consulted his daughter Sydney and his son Gunnar. Both children professed that they didn't know whether they preferred that their father keep playing
''See,'' Boomer said. ''All the Esiason family has no idea.'' Until his family votes unanimously for retirement, Boomer Esiason should probably stick with football. He is passing too well to throw in the towel.