A Booming endorsement

3-23-03, 7:50 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

PHOENIX, Ariz. _ The Bengals may have worked out USC quarterback Carson Palmer Friday. But one of his would-be predecessors in Cincinnati, Boomer Esiason, has been putting him through some paces the past month.

Esiason not only thinks the Bengals should take Palmer with the first pick in next month's draft, he thinks the guy wants to be there and that he has a heartland personality that fits perfectly in Cincinnati.

"This kid seems to be saying all the right things and he's got a good head on his shoulders," said Esiason Sunday as he checked into the NFL's annual meetings. "He really wants to play there and that's half the battle. My thing is, the kid seems to want to be there and I think he'll be a good pro. Not an immediate impact, but in a couple of years."

Palmer and the Bengals are one of the hot topics as the owners and coaches gather this week to probably table and delay a proposed change in the overtime, as well as another proposal that would expand the playoffs to 14 teams. With Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis showing the best poker face since Gary Cooper showed up at "High Noon," no one is quite sure if the Bengals are backing off Palmer or are about to embrace him after scouting him twice in the last two weeks.

Esiason, the Bengals' last playoff quarterback (1990) and the last Bengals' quarterback to win four starts in a month (1997), has become kind of a semi advisor in Palmer's draft cabinet. At the urging of Pete Carroll, Palmer's college coach and Esiason's coach with the Jets, Esiason spoke with Palmer about Franchise QB 101. The Bengals have turned out to be a favorite lecture.

Last month, he and wife Cheryl had dinner with Palmer and his fiancée, Shaelyn Fernandes, and the Esiasons offered a No. 1 Places Rated Almanac endorsement of Cincinnati.

"Cheryl and I have always liked the Brown family, you know that, so I think we dispelled any of those rumors," said Esiason of what are now becoming the old perceptions."You can just look at what they've done in the last three months and see that they're changing."

Esiason, now a CBS studio anchor, gazed at some of the national media holding court and said, "I don't know if you guys even realize what Marvin (Lewis) has done there. Just from

the (perception), and what he's done with his players and some of the free agents they've gotten. They've gotten some quality guys, which is really a nice thing."

Esiason isn't saying Palmer is a sure thing. He only has to look at the guy who was drafted in the first round in 1992 and was supposed to take his place.

"David Klingler was the greatest athlete I ever saw," Esiason said. "But unfortunately, he didn't have the right temperament. He didn't have the right heart for it all."

But Esiason thinks Palmer does. He compares the 6-6, 235-pounder more to Kerry Collins than Troy Aikman and says if they can develop Palmer as Collins developed, "there's your franchise quarterback."

Reminded that Collins had to get out of Carolina before he led the Giants to a Super Bowl, Esiason said, "he also had some internal, emotional problems and personal problems that aren't a part of Carson.

"He's really a great kid," Esiason said. "If you ask me, I would take him No. 1. But Andre Ware and David Klingler were like that, right? Can't miss."

The Bengals also like Palmer as a person. They like the fact he and Fernandes are getting married July 5, not to mention, in a ceremony befitting a Heisman Trophy winner at Pebble Beach. A source close to Palmer said he also jotted Bengals President Mike Brown a note after meeting him at the Senior Bowl.

David Dunn, Palmer's agent, knows he hit gold when Esiason entered the scene.

"The way a quarterback is, is just as important as the way a quarterback plays," Dunn said. "And that's why Boomer has been so helpful. He's seen it from so many different angles. How much tape to watch. How to conduct yourself in off-field conditions. He and Cheryl have been absolutely wonderful, and not just in talking about Cincinnati, but other aspects of the NFL."

Esiason, of course, helped make Cincinnati one of the NFL's hot spots in the late '80s. He knows the mania can be unleashed again.

He told Palmer, "You can make it a great place. If you go into it thinking negative, you bring that along with you."

Esiason senses Palmer feels like he's the No. 1 pick, and Esiason can sort of relate. Back in 1984, he thought he was a first-round pick. He fell to the second round and he's telling Palmer not to take it so hard if he falls a few spots.

"(At this stage) People are looking for reasons why not to pick you as opposed to why to pick you. I think that probably is what Cincinnati is going through a little bit now. It's just a natural thing. Everybody has warts on them."

So far, Esiason sees no scars on the Bengals' rebuilding project. Yes, he took note of the decision to give quarterback Jon Kitna his $1.6 million bonus when the league gave them discretion not to recognize the play-time incentive.

"Maybe that's $1.6 million worth of public relations they just bought that they couldn't buy anywhere else," he said. "Everybody knows they did it. It's the right thing. Now they won't be perceived as being as frugal."

Esiason has a pretty good idea how this one is going to come out. If anyone knows, he knows what a quarterback means to his old team.

"Mike really wants to have a guy back there," Esiason said. "He needs a guy back there, and Kitna is a good guy to have around teaching him."

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