Bengals Are Willing to Lay It on the Line for Esiason : QB’s Leadership Augurs Return to Super Bowl

Times Staff Writer

One day in 1987 when the National Football League’s 1300 players still had a chance to win a bitter strike against the league’s 28 club owners, a bus full of nonunion substitutes drove up to the gate leading to the Cincinnati Bengals’ practice field--but couldn’t get in.

Blocking the way, a union man was lying in the street, directly in front of the bus. This was the Cincinnati quarterback, Boomer Esiason.

Unlike Steve Largent, Howie Long and other high-salaried stars who played alongside nonunion strikebreakers that fall, Esiason stuck it out with the low-salaried strikers.

“I’m not 100% for the strike, but I’m 100% against scabs,” he said.

His teammates haven’t forgotten it. They’ve played harder for Esiason, they say, than some pros play for other quarterbacks. And last year there was a payoff when the Bengals won the American Conference championship, then came within 34 seconds of winning the Super Bowl.


Their 1988 accomplishments have made them the AFC team to beat again. As they begin a three-cornered race with the Buffalo Bills and Houston Oilers--in a conference that seems to lack any other bona fide contenders--the Bengals appear to have the edge for three reasons. These are:

--Leadership. Their coach, Sam Wyche, has been called the most imaginative in the NFL. Wyche’s innovations include the no-huddle offense.

--Motivation. In addition to Esiason’s leadership, there is the memory of their Super Bowl near-miss. A team that climbs to within 34 seconds of the championship has a powerful reason to get back and win.

--Talent. If Esiason’s surgically repaired shoulder is sound again, the Bengals will have all the players they need. They are adequate to excellent everywhere else.

Of the AFC’s only three contenders, Houston seems more talented offensively, and Buffalo fields a better defensive team, but the Bengals may have the best blend of both.

Their main problem is salaries. Their tight-fisted management has had trouble signing, among others, their best receiver, Eddie Brown, and one of the game’s great blockers, Max Montoya. That hurts.

These should be the AFC’s top 10, with each coach’s NFL record in parenthesis:


1988 Record: 12-4

Quarterback: Boomer Esiason

Coach: Sam Wyche (43-39)

The offensive line, with Anthony Munoz and Max Montoya, is a machine. The backs, James Brooks and Ickey Woods, and wide receiver Eddie Brown are as good as any. Although the defensive rush could be stronger, the Bengals make up for it by using the NFL’s fastest linebacker, David Fulcher, at safety.


1988 Record: 12-4

Quarterback: Jim Kelly

Coach: Marv Levy (22-18)

On defense, the Bills were fourth in the NFL last year behind NFC teams Minnesota, Chicago and San Francisco. On offense they’re ultraconservative. Looking ahead to the ‘90s, their edge against penurious Cincinnati is that Bill General Manager Bill Polian has persuaded owner Ralph Wilson that he must invest heavily in talent.


1988 Record: 10-6

Quarterback: Warren Moon

Coach: Jerry Glanville (26-27)

The consensus is that the Oilers lead the AFC in both quantity and quality of talent. They have four backs who could play anywhere--Alonzo Highsmith, Mike Rozier, Allen Pinkett and Lorenzo White--whereas Denver and others have few or none. Still, in each of the last two years, Houston has been stopped early in the playoffs.


1988 Record: 10-6

Quarterback: Bernie Kosar

Coach: Bud Carson (0-0)

It seems unlikely that the Browns or any other AFC entry will contend against Cincinnati, Buffalo and Houston this season. The Browns have lost their backfield and the coach who led them into the playoffs in each of the last four seasons--Marty Schottenheimer. There are also some defensive holes.


1988 Record: 9-7

Quarterback: Chris Chandler

Coach: Ron Meyer (21-14)

Throughout his NFL career, running back Eric Dickerson has played for teams with substandard passers and pass offenses. If the Colts had an air threat, Dickerson could run them into the Super Bowl. What this team glaringly needs is a passing game with an advanced, modern design.


1988 Record: 9-7

Quarterback: Tony Eason

Coach: Raymond Berry (46-30)

This team also runs well with a hard knocker, John Stephens, but they aren’t in the NFL’s top 26 as a passing team. Starting earlier in this decade, the Patriots, like the Raiders, stuck for years with big-armed passers who, as all-around quarterbacks, weren’t quite good enough. And also like the Raiders, they wouldn’t admit it but have had to pay for it.


1988 Record: 4-11-1

Quarterbacks: Steve DeBerg,

Ron Jaworski

Coach: Marty Schottenheimer (46-31)

The Chiefs, with a new coach and general manager, Carl Peterson, might be a year or two away. Their old quarterbacks might not do it. But if one or the other starts all 16 games, they have a chance at 8-8, which should be enough.


1988 Record: 7-9

Quarterback: Jay Schroeder

Coach: Mike Shanahan (7-9)

Schottenheimer, a defensive expert, thought enough of the Raiders’ new defensive coordinator, Dave Adolph, to make him Cleveland’s defensive coordinator on the Browns’ 1986-88 playoff teams. So don’t worry--yet--about the Raiders’ slow exhibition-season start. With Steve Beuerlein, Shanahan has more depth at quarterback than some coaches.


1988 Record: 9-7

Quarterback: Dave Krieg

Coach: Chuck Knox (60-42)

On the last day of 1988, the Seahawk-Raider winner was going to win the division. Final score: Seahawks 43, Raiders 37. Knox has a knack for making the playoffs, getting there 11 times in 16 seasons. Even when he misses, he isn’t far away. The Knox problem in all 16 years has been erratic quarterbacking. The 1989 secret weapon might be rookie running back Derrick Fenner.


1988 Record: 6-10

QB: Jim McMahon

Coach: Dan Henning (22-41-1)

Owner Alex Spanos thinks Henning’s problem at Atlanta was Atlanta, not Henning. If so, in this environment, he can move the Chargers up. He will move the Chargers up if McMahon starts 16 games. Quarterback Billy Joe Tolliver is a rookie prospect.

A look at the divisions:

WEST: Kansas City, Raiders, Seattle, San Diego. The Denver Broncos, after all these years, are still looking for a running back. They have blamed their other recent problems on one of the game’s most effective defensive coordinators, Joe Collier, who has been fired. If the Broncos are right about that, if they’re powerful defensively now, they will win the division.

EAST: Buffalo, Indianapolis, New England. The Miami Dolphins need 20 more guys like quarterback Dan Marino and linebacker John Offerdahl. The New York Jets can’t overcome their leadership problems with fragile quarterback Ken O’Brien.

CENTRAL: Cincinnati, Houston, Cleveland. If you can remember the 1970s, the Pittsburgh Steelers are a beautiful memory.