BY GEOFF HOBSON
Boomer Esiason likes these Bengals. For the first time in years, he thinks they have a shot at doing something. He likes Peter Warrick's hands and Corey Dillon's legs, and Akili Smith's head and heart. In fact, he swears he's seen these guys some place before.
New York? Monday night? The Waterfront?
Try 1985, when Norman Julius Esiason began his first season as the Bengals starting quarterback in his second year. Just where Kabisa Akili Maradufu Smith is now.
"There's going to be a lot of fireworks. Both ways," Esiason told bengals.com today. "I don't think they're a playoff team by any stretch. But they've got so many talented young guys, I can see them being exciting and not the same old Bengals. It's tough to find a team with so many up-and-coming players. Who knows? If the league broke right, they could go the playoffs this year. But when Darnay (Scott) is back and the quarterback is a year older, I would think '01 is a year to look at."
The Bengals would take 1985 for 2000 right now. They had an intriguing 7-9 season after losing the first three games and rolled up 441 points to their foes' 437.
Could Smith repeat the young Boomer's quarterback rating of 93.2 and throw for 27 touchdowns? Could running back Corey Dillon come close to the 1,700 yards chewed up by James Brooks and Larry Kinnebrew? Could Warrick repeat No. 1 pick Eddie Brown's rookie season of 17.8 yards per his 53 catches and eight touchdowns? They would need another rookie receiver, Ron Dugans, to match Cris Collinsworth's 17.3 yards per his 65 catches.
Still, Esiason has confidence in a young offensive assistant coach on that staff who became the Bengals offensive coordinator the next season, when they went 10-6 and racked up 52 points against the Jets in the '86 finale. Esiason still believes in Bruce Coslet, the current head coach working on the last year of his deal.
"I don't know what's going to happen because there's the new stadium and there's public sentiment and all that," Esiason said. "But I would think if Akili finds himself on the way to the Pro Bowl, that would signify just how good Bruce and Kenny (Anderson) are. I believe in them and I think it's a great offense for Akili because he's athletic and he's older and more mature than most of the other young quarterbacks. I worry about him with the young receivers, but they have talent."
Esiason is also adjusting to a new route. He's preparing for his first game as an analyst on CBS Radio's Monday night crew when the Rams open at home against Denver. He hasn't been paying much attention to one of the guys who replaced him in the ABC-TV Monday night booth, comedian Dennis Miller.
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"In what I'm doing, I take football as a very serious game," Esiason said. "I believe in levity. But I don't believe you can pre-program it. It's important to me because when I'm preparing, I know it's important to the guys who play it and the guys who coach it."
OK, so Esiason won't be chalk talking with the man who couldn't be Howard Cosell without the toup anytime soon. But Esiason will be reading all about his Bengals. He liked hearing about Wednesday's team meeting. "
Bruce has been telling me about the little things that Akili is doing to get guys to respect him, to like him," Esiason said. "That's the key. You have to lead, but you have to do it without having an ego or being arrogant. I like the fact John Jackson is showing guys the way because he's been playing so long. I like the fact that guys like Willie Anderson are standing up.
"Count them out. You've got Akili, Corey, Warrick, Dugans (right tackle) Willie Anderson, (linebackers) Takeo Spikes and Brian Simmons," Esiason said. "That's seven or eight guys who have a shot at some point of going to the Pro Bowl. That's a lot of budding stars. It's hard to find a team with that many."
But Esiason is as much analyst as he is fan. He knows they lack the great pass rusher and the shut-down cornerback and the youth at receiver makes him wonder if Smith will get out of the season with his sanity.
"They're young, but from what I hear about Akili, he can play," Esiason said. "For years, they always seemed to go into a season teetering on Jeff Blake's arm and the two great receivers (Scott and Carl Pickens). Now you've got three legitimate guys in Akili throwing, Corey running and Warrick making some plays."
As for the rest of the NFL, Esiason sees the Rams continuing to make plays, but he also thinks the Redskins can make a run at St. Louis. He seems more interested in the AFC, which Esiason thinks is more wide-open now with all the injuries in Jacksonville. He thinks Mike Holmgren makes Seattle dangerous and wonders if Oakland could surprise.
"If I had to pick a surprise team in the AFC it would be Baltimore," said Esiason, who admits he's no big fan of the Ravens quarterback. "If Tony Banks can get half his act together, they could make a run because their defense is about as good as it gets."