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Super QB talk

1-27-04, 9 p.m.


HOUSTON _ Boomer Esiason, the last quarterback to lead the Bengals to a Super Bowl, says they can get here next year with Carson Palmer and that he ought to get the chance to be the No . 1 quarterback when drills open in May.

Esiason is set to announce his fifth straight Super Bowl Sunday here at Reliant Stadium, this time as the CBS Radio analyst, and it marks the 15th anniversary of his appearance against the 49ers in the heartbreaking 20-16 loss in Super Bowl XXIII. That followed his MVP season during his fifth year in the NFL, but he says his biggest improvement came between his first and second seasons.

"Jon Kitna has done a great job, but there's always the next level," said Esiason Tuesday after a CBS news conference unveiling Sunday's announcing team. "That's why you hope the guy that they drafted first overall can be that guy. You can't pay him that much money and ask him to sit on the sidelines."

After telling the media gathering, "I'm a personal seat license holder of the Cincinnati Bengals, so I know what it is to be a real fan," Esiason disputed the notion that the Bengals would dip back below .500 in 2004 with a second-year quarterback who has yet to take a NFL snap.

"The players in the NFL make the biggest jump to the second year from the first year," Esiason said. "Now they're acclimated. Now they understand what's going on. He was there for the entire season. He watched it unfold. He saw how Jon Kitna handled it. I've got to believe what I know of (Palmer) and know what I've seen of him over the last year, he just can't wait to get the field. He's got to earn it, but I think going into it, you've got to believe he's going to be the guy that takes you to the next level."

Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis joined Esiason in the horde that was Media Day Tuesday for the NFL Network and though he wasn't talking Kitna Palmer (Palmer-Kitna?), he was talking about a Super Bowl about to be quarterbacked by a sixth-rounder and a college free agent.

But it just doesn't happen a lot early. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, 27, is bidding to become just the fifth quarterback to win a second Super Bowl before the age of 29. (Troy Aikman, Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana, Bob Griese.)

Although Lewis' first draft choice as a head coach was a potential franchise quarterback, he knows his one Super Bowl ring was quarterbacked by a journeyman in Trent Dilfer and his one AFC ring was quarterbacked by a caretaker in Neil O'Donnell.

So he agreed that how Patriots coach Bill Belichick and Panthers coach John Fox steered their unspectacular teams here is more proof that the best teams don't win by having a single dominant player at any position.

"John Elway couldn't do it by himself. Dan Marino never did it by himself," Lewis said. "Look at the teams who have won these games, it's been

football teams. It's not been a player. There have been certain players that have been great players through their careers on one team, but never won a championship. So far, it's a group of guys that are united and play together."

Lewis would argue that the Bengals' Super Bowl teams won the AFC because they had a good team across the board and not just because of a franchise quarterback.

"I don't know that anybody around would ever say that Ken Anderson was a great quarterback," Lewis said. "He was productive, efficient and played well. Maybe Boomer had all of those things. Again, those were good teams made up of a lot of good players. They just weren't Ken Anderson. . ."

Esiason is a big fan of his mentor and continues to insist that Anderson should be in the Hall of Fame. The PSL-holder knows his Bengals' history and that Anderson won his duel with Chargers Hall-of-Famer Dan Fouts in the 1981 AFC title game.

"I love Dan Fouts. He deserves to be in there, but so does Kenny," Esiason said. "In the biggest game they ever played, Kenny beat him. It's unfortunate someone in the media conglomerate that does the Hall of Fame doesn't have Kenny at the top of their list."

Esiason thinks the unwritten rule that a quarterback has to win a Super Bowl to get in the Hall (except Fouts it seems) is too strict, and that gets back to how a quarterback needs someone to help him.

"Look at how many are in the Super Bowl, and how many have played in 38 years. That number compared to the amount who played the position in history is minute. It's a very small number. It's not easy to get there. There are so many factors that go into it. Sometimes people have unrealistic views of what that ring means. Then again, I didn't win one, so somebody who actually won one might feel differently than I do."

Esiason wonders if his perspective is a bit skewed after playing for the Bengals, Jets, and Cardinals. But he, like Lewis, knows you need something around you.

"I didn't play in Denver, where a guy spends money and always gets guys around you, or in Miami where they're trying to spend it and try to win," Esiason said. "I have a unique perspective in the sense that while I recognize it's the most important position in sport, I also realize it's the most susceptible to all the variables that go on around you."


ALL MARVIN ALL THE TIME:** Lewis enjoyed his stint behind the microphone for NFL Network Tuesday because his interviews with the Panthers "reinforced," his belief on what kind of players teams need to make it here. He sees the Super Bowl coming down to how effectively each secondary stuffs and challenges the opposing receivers.

"(The Patriots) are going to play the run well," Lewis said, "and on the other side of the ball, Carolina has to get up on those guys, otherwise (Tom) Brady is just going to take the seven- and eight-yard play, and a missed tackle is going to be a 20-yard gain."

SUPER SLANTS: Panthers strength and conditioning coach Jerry Simmons, uncle of Bengals special teams coach Darrin Simmons, got a bit choked up Tuesday thinking about him even as he enjoyed his first Super Bowl of his 16 NFL seasons. Jerry, 49, broke into the pros with, of all people, the 1988 Patriots, where he took his high-school aged nephew to training camp.

"We're a close family from a small town in Kansas and this is quite a thing for us," said Simmons, like Darrin, born in Elkhart. "Early in the season, I thought about how much Darrin had been through with us and how badly I felt that he was missing out on what was happening. But then as the season went on, I saw how much success they were having in Cincinnati and it just made me feel so proud, so I was torn.'

Darrin, 30, has no second thoughts, but he is making some second and third calls nowadays. While Jerry stood in the stands at Reliant during Tuesday's Media Day, he fielded a call from Darrin on his cell phone. As the Panthers boarded their bus to play the Eagles in the NFC championship game last week, Darrin sat in his bus on the way to the airport for the Senior Bowl trip and talked to his boss in Carolina for the previous four seasons, special teams coach Scott O'Brien.

"I'm so happy for those guys. My uncle's been

in the league for 16 years and Scott (13 years) and this is just their second time to the playoffs and first Super Bowl," Darrin said. "Those are two guys that really deserve it.

"The way I look at it," Darrin said, "I made a great move. For 90 percent of the season, we were the story in the NFL and this was a special team to be with. I'm not thinking about 'What if?' I moved on and those guys have been successful and I couldn't be happier. Of course, I'm pulling for them."

Jerry had no doubt Darrin would emerge from O'Brien's school and pass on the success to another team.

"We come from a place where all you do growing up is pretty much work on the farm," Jerry said. "If you saw this kid's work ethic and what he's done to get there, you knew it was going to happen."

Darrin plans to check out his friends Thursday when he arrives for the game and visits the team hotel. . .

How about former Bengals tight end Marco Battaglia? Here he was on the floor of Reliant doing a cell-phone radio interview in a No. 47 Panthers' jersey, and then getting interviewed by cameras from Charlotte to Denmark.

"My career has just been crazy," Battaglia said. "But it's obviously great to be here and to experience it. I'd love to score the winning touchdown, but I'm a spectator and I'm going to enjoy it because you never know when it might come around again."

After six seasons with no playoffs for the Bengals, Battaglia hooked up with Tampa Bay in 2002, got cut before the Bucs even started their Super run, and finished up on a play-off run in Pittsburgh for the last month or so.

Then, when Miami wanted to go with two younger tight ends, he got cut just before the start of this past regular season. When rookie Mike Seidman suffered a season-ending knee injury, Battaglia signed with Carolina Dec. 2, and played on offense and special teams five days later. He has played in two games, but has been inactive for the last four, and doesn't expect to play Sunday.

"It would be a lot different if I was playing," Battaglia said. "But I'm in the big show, I'm practicing, I'm enjoying it. I'm an insurance policy.

"I think the salary is killing me," Battaglia said. "It seems like teams don't want to pay a veteran when they can get someone younger."

Asked if he's seen anything eye-opening this week, Battaglia gave an answer true to his New York City roots: "I've been around the NFL for eight years. I think I've seen everything."

Battaglia then saw a former teammate, Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp, and Sapp got on him about No. 47.

"Get a number in the 80s," Sapp said.

"I've been here a month," Battaglia said.

But it may be long enough for a ring. . .

In Cincinnati, the Bengals re-signed defensive end LaDairis Jackson Tuesday to a two-year deal. Jackson, who played for head coach Marvin Lewis as a Washington rookie in 2002, was picked up on waivers Oct. 22 and was cut Nov. 25 without playing in a game. . .

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