4-12-02, 5:30 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Nine years ago, former Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason stood in Drew Bledsoe's shoes. If he could talk to the Patriots quarterback a week before the NFL Draft, this is what he would tell him about that walk in 1993 that sent him from Cincinnati to the Jets in a trade.
In no way did Esiason want to return to a team that had hedged its bets on a young quarterback. He felt a trade to a team that surrounded him with weapons would revive his flagging career. And on Friday, Esiason recalled how he would have led the Jets to the 1993 playoffs if one of three short field goals had been made in the Buffalo chill.
"I haven't talked to Drew," Esiason said from New York, "but I can't imagine he would think going to Cincinnati wouldn't help his career. He would have a good offensive line, good, young receivers and I'm not saying they're the Monsters of the Midway, but the defense is good.
"And a 1,000-yard running back? Drew's best years were with Curtis Martin and I can tell him how great Corey Dillon is. They could be the New England Patriots of 2002."
But Esiason's counsel may not matter. The Bengals and Bills still won't give the Patriots a first-round draft pick for Bledsoe in a process that has become so frustrating that some published reports around the NFL are speculating the Pats have never really wanted to deal Bledsoe.
The Bengals have indicated they have had no trade talks for a player in more than a week and insiders denied one published report that said the club had offered the Patriots one of their offensive players as part of a proposal.
Now the draft buzz is the Bills are going to sit back and make one last
bid for Bledsoe after the first round with their second-round pick. Don't look for the Bengals to run at Bledsoe during the draft because they would probably need more time to fit his $5 million salary under this year's salary cap.
Esiason has been reacting to last month's published reports that had Bledsoe's agent telling the Bengals his client didn't want to play in Cincinnati. But going off recent reports, apparently Bledsoe has been telling people in Boston the opposite for the past two weeks.
It's hard for the Bengals and Bills to get a read on what he's thinking because there has been no indication that the Pats have given Bledsoe and his agent permission to speak to other teams, more evidence New England wants to keep him around.
Which Esiason can't understand. Like Bledsoe is now, Esiason was a nine-year veteran and a multi-Pro Bowl player with more than 25,000 passing yards. Both had led a team to a Super Bowl and went through coming to grips with being supplanted by a younger player after two down years.
"No way would I want to come back. Not with Tom Brady on the cover of "Sports Illustrated," and throwing baseballs at Red Sox games, ," said Esiason, who felt the same way when the Bengals drafted David Klingler in the first round of the 1992 draft.
"It's his team now. Not Drew Bledsoe's team," Esiason said. "The team is pretty much always going to go with the future and who is getting the big money. Especially with what Brady did for them last year. They've got to give him the next two years."
Despite the failures of Klingler and Smith seven years later, Esiason urges them to take Oregon quarterback Joey Harrington with the 10th pick in the first round if there is no Bledsoe.
"If he falls to them, you have to take him," Esiason said. "It's about value and at No. 10 that kind of quarterback is a great value pick. You have to do that. Look around the league. There just arent't many quarterbacks around. He certainly seems bright and tough."
Esiason absolves his first NFL mentor, quarterbacks coach Ken Anderson, of the blame when it comes to the club's inability to groom the position. Anderson was involved in the drafting of only Smith, but his first assignment when he joined the coaching staff in 1993 was to revive Klingler's career.
"It's not Ken Anderson at all," Esiason said. "There are three things that matter most for a quarterback. The first is the kind of players he has around him. No. 2. is his own ability to handle and react to the game. Maybe Klingler and Akili haven't been the answer. And No. 3 is the stability of the franchise. Let's face it, this hasn't been the most stable of teams the last two years. They've got the same coaches, but it's a new (offensive) system."
When Esiason made the move to the Jets, he felt he had all three elements in place in leading New York from a 4-12 record in 1992 to an 8-8 mark in '93 that should have been 9-7 and a play-off berth if kicker Cary Blanchard had come through. He was reunited with Jets head coach Bruce Coslet, his offensive coordinator in Cincinnati, and responded with a 84.5 rating, his first time in the 80s since he won the AFC passing title in 1989.
"I was going to where I knew the coach," Esiason said. "But I was also going to a team that had a good running back in Johnny Johnson and great young receivers in Rob Moore and Johnny Mitchell. They had gone through Ken O'Brien and Browning Nagle with the quarterback stuff and they were looking for a guy that could run what Bruce was trying to do and it worked."
If Esiason could show Bledsoe one thing, it would be one number.
That was Esiason's through-the-roof passing rating from 1997, his last season in the NFL and the one he played with a rookie running back and future Pro Bowler named Dillon.
Esiason has never backed away from ripping his old team. But if nine years ago the Bengals were the last team for Esiason, he thinks they seem just right for Bledsoe right now.
"You've got to go where you think guys are going to effective," Esiason. "It would seem to be the right team for him."