8-27-01, 8:40 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
It's hard to believe, but it is suddenly 10 years ago Boomer Esiason made his last Opening Day start for the Bengals. Maybe harder to believe is that there have been six Opening Day quarterbacks since.
But believe this.
Esiason still thinks Gus Frerotte, with a little help from Jon Kitna and maybe Akili Smith, can be the first quarterback to take the Bengals to the playoffs since he did it in 1990.
"They have two quarterbacks, and maybe three, who have shown they can move the ball," Esiason said Tuesday. "Gus and Jon are guys who have been through the wars and they've got that intestinal fortitude.
"They've got a veteran offensive line that's been together," Esiason said. "You have to say Marshall Faulk is the best running back in the league, but if it's not Corey (Dillon), then he's one of the top three. They've got a lot of talent there."
Esiason, now the brightest star in the CBS-TV studio on Sundays, is hesitant to crucify the Bengals for failing to find a franchise quarterback. When Frerotte mentions Vinny Testaverde and Rich Gannon as late bloomers who have become franchise players, Esiason adds another
"What about Kurt Warner?" he asked. "It's not like they haven't tried to find a guy. They thought it was David Klingler and they thought it was Akili Smith. Most teams are trying to find that guy. I just think they are more improved at that spot than they have been in awhile."
Esiason isn't down on Kitna. He thinks last season there were some things beyond his control in his first year with the Bengals. Kitna threw 22 interceptions, the same number Esiason threw in '90. But Esiason was working in the same offense for the seventh straight year, and he had veteran wideouts and a Pro Bowl tight end who helped him to 24 touchdown passes instead of Kitna's 12.
"I know Jon must feel badly, but he has to know there's a good chance he'll play some," Esiason said. "I guarantee you that at some point you're going to call me during the season and ask, 'How do you think Kitna will do this week?' You know he has to be a better quarterback now than he was last year."
Esiason, a recycled veteran quarterback himself, likes the idea of a veteran like Frerotte with a track record leading the show.
In Esiason's fourth and final reincarnation as a backup with the Bengals in 1997, he gave focus and purpose to a young, aimless team and showed how important a quarterback is. He took a 2-7 nightmare and personally turned it into a 5-2 summer. His departure to the TV booth at the end of the season (for a variety of reasons on both sides), has yet to be solved.
But that might as well be 1987 to Esiason.
"That's so old," Esiason said. "There should be a statute of limitations on that question."
But the analysis is ageless.
"They can do it. They can win the division," Esiason said. "If the quarterback doesn't lose the games they can win. I think these guys have a chance to do that this year."
He may be wearing the objectivity of a solid network blazer, but it covers a black and orange striped heart.
"I'm really hoping," Esiason said, "these guys are the New England Patriots of this year."