KANSAS CITY _ Quarterback Boomer Esiason's reputation as a fierce competitor and revered locker room leader takes another step into lore today when the reigning NFL MVP is summoned off the bench with a sprained left ankle at hostile Arrowhead Stadium and rallies the Bengals to a 21-17 victory over the Chiefs to get the defending AFC champs rolling at 3-1. The Bengals get exactly what they need from their best players when they need it most. The win is also courtesy of a dominant performance from Pro Bowl strong safety David Fulcher as part of what defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau calls the best performance by his unit in the 10 seasons he's been with the club.
Fulcher, the man re-inventing the safety position, has three interceptions, a fumble recovery, and is at the center of a dreamy fourth quarter sequence against Kansas City's feared 260-pound running back Christian Okoye, known as "The Nigerian Nightmare." Fulcher hits Okoye on second-and-four from the Chiefs 19 and while Okoye gets three yards Fulcher stands him up and linebacker Leon White sweeps the ball from him and as White runs in for the winning touchdown with 13:58 left in the game the Chiefs complain the whistle had blown and Okoye was down. In the no replay era White reports, "It was a pretty clean swipe. Everybody stood him up." Later, they stuff Okoye on fourth-and-one.
As Esiason effusively praises the defense, everyone effusively praises Esiason. Head coach Sam Wyche comes this close to deactivating him during the week after he sprains his ankle in the win over Cleveland Monday night. He starts backup Turk Schonert instead, but Schonert sprains his ankle on the game's sixth play. "I told (Wyche) before the game not to throw all of this stuff at me, but he threw it at me anyway and kind of threw caution to the wind," Esiason says. "Before the game I told him if Turk goes down I can go in and play but we wouldn't be able to run certain plays. After I was playing I told him it didn't matter. He could call what he wanted."
He gets sacked on his first series and the Bengals fall behind, 10-0. But he hits wide receiver Tim McGee on a 40-yard TD pass off, what else?, play action, and rookie running back Eric Ball, their leading rusher with 71 yards on 16 carries, scores on a short run late in the first half to tie it at 14. As Jack Brennan writes in The Cincinnati Post about Esiason's six of 14 passing for 152 yards, the NFL's most misleading stat of the week is the ending of Esiason's streak of 64 straight starts in the regular and postseason. Recalling Jack Lambert's famous quote that quarterbacks should wear skirts, Esiason shows he has a future in TV when he sums up the day with, "I don't like to be a Jack Lambert stigma type of quarterback … I always felt they pay me to play."