11-8-01, 6:00 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Boomer Esiason has been to enough funerals. Enough memorial services. Enough eulogies and good-byes.
He has been to about a dozen since Sept. 11 and maybe the only good thing about this dark autumn is that he enjoys talking and watching his Bengals for the first time since, well, probably 1990.
"I've had enough of it. I can't go to anymore," said Esiason of the endless ceremonies spawned by the attack on his city. "I'm lucky because I go on the road every week and I can get away from New York for a few days."
The Bengals have also served as a weekly respite. He says the win over Super Bowl champion Baltimore 12 days after the attack did much for his soul.
And as this Bengals team keeps doing things for the first time since Esiason quarterbacked their Astroturf ancestors to the '90 playoffs (2-0 start at home, over .500 in September and October), he has noticed from his perch in the CBS Radio Monday Night booth and in the FOXSportsNet pre-game studio.
"I can't tell you how good I feel being able to talk about the Bengals like this because they are doing well," Esiason said. "It's tough when they don't do well. Let's face it. I'll always be a Bengals fan. We had Corey Dillon in here this past Sunday for our FOX show and it was great to see a Bengal get that kind of exposure. Usually, it's only been on Draft Day."
When Dillon appeared on Esiason's roundtable, it was probably the most high-profile appearance by an active Bengal since Esiason did studio gigs during the playoffs.
So what better guy to analyze the '01 team's shot at the playoffs coming off a 4-3 bye than the quarterback who had the '90 Bengals coming off their bye 5-4?
"They've got to go 2-1 the next three weeks," Esiason said. "They have to get to 6-4 and then see what happens. To me, this three-game stretch makes their season. There's
only 16 games and you're running out of time.
"This game coming up scares me," Esiason said. "It's almost like a set-up game. Jacksonville doesn't play like a 2-5 team on tape and I don't like the matchup with (Jags receivers) Keenan McCardell and Jimmy Smith against this secondary."
The next three games are all in the AFC Central with Jacksonville and Cleveland on the road and Tennessee at home. In '90, the Bengals came out of their bye with games against the Steelers sandwiched around a home game against the Colts. The Bengals lost at home, but swept Pittsburgh to be 7-5 and on the way to 9-7 and the playoffs.
If the Bengals repeat, they will do it much the way they did in '90. With a bend-but-don't-break defense and an offense built around the running game. In fact, the '90 team makes this one look like Air Coryell by averaging 33.4 passes per game.
After losing two straight games before the bye week, coach Sam Wyche, known for swashbuckling offenses, went slightly to the right of Woody Hayes. In the last seven games, Esiason averaged 19.85 passes per game as Wyche stayed on the field with running back James Brooks' 5.1 yards per carry and a no-huddle offense that drained the clock before the snap.
Back then, Esiason occasionally bristled at the lack of the pass because he felt it got stale from disuse. But he never quibbled with the results.
"It's so long ago, I can't remember," Esiason said. "Sam knew what our strengths were and that's what you have to do. Hey, we took care of the ball, we won, we went to the playoffs, and that's all that mattered."
Hall of Fame left tackle Anthony Munoz anchored an early version of the Denver Broncos' offensive line. Everyone from rookie Harold Green (4.3), banged-up veteran Ickey Woods (4.2) and unknown Craig Taylor (4.2) averaged more than four yards per carry.
"I'd be curious to see how many of those 19 passes were off play-action," Munoz said. "Yeah, I'd say 15. When you have so much success running the ball like that, you stick with it. I can see (Esiason's) point when you pound the ball and you pound the ball and all of a sudden it's third and long and now you have to adjust to blocking a guy on the edge for the pass.
"With the way Corey runs the ball, it has to be a priority," Munoz said. "I like the way they've mixed up the pass and the style of the passing game. It gives them a chance to get it down the field right away."
Although there is a 40-pound difference in the 225-pound Dillon and the 185-pound Brooks, Esiason sees similarities there, too. He always felt Brooks had a big-back mentality. Now he sees Dillon with scat-back speed.
"JB had the power of a 200-pound guy," Esiason said. "Corey has the power of a 240-pound guy, but he can run away from you like a 210-pound guy.
"Corey is a reincarnation of Jim Brown," said Esiason, who lives in the Hall-of-Famer's hometown of Manhasset on Long Island. "He almost never goes down on the first tackle and he's a threat to make a long run every time he touches it. I knew it then when I saw it happening up close."
Dillon's rookie year is Esiason's last and it was Esiason who handed the ball to him 39 times that night in 1997 when Dillon broke Brown's rookie record with 246 yards. Esiason was reminded of how long ago that was when they sat down in studio Sunday. For Dillon, that was six starting quarterbacks, two combustible contract negotiations, one head coach, and one NFL single-game rushing record ago.
"He's older. He's changed," Esiason said. "He's been through a great deal. I can't imagine some of it, and here he is."
Quarterback Jon Kitna invoked Esiason's name the other day when asked about his leadership and Esiason knows how much Kitna is holding in his hands. In those last seven games of '90, Esiason answered his nine interceptions with nine touchdown passes to go along with the cool stewardship of the offense in the heat of the stretch.
"He can't have another San Diego," said Esiason of Kitna's three-interception game. "But he played very well in Detroit. He made some big throws and some great decisions. He was a big difference in the game. He was doing more than just holding down a job. That's what has to be done."
It really is 1990 again. Norman Julius Esiason is talking Bengals. And he's pumped up.
"Two out of the next three," Esiason said. "Then let's see."