Arizona quarterback Boomer Esiason is an optimist, as anyone fortunate enough to be released by the Jets should be. On Sunday at Sun Devil Stadium, after Philadelphia erased the 29-20 lead he had staked the Cardinals to just two minutes earlier, Esiason found himself facing a one-point deficit with 52 seconds left and no timeouts. He refused to pout. Or panic. Spotting former Eagles defensive tackle and current ESPN reporter Mike Golic behind the Arizona bench, Esiason warmly shook his hand, smiled and said, "Gimme 45 seconds, and I can win this thing."
Archimedes' boasts were more restrained. Remember, these are the Cardinals for whom Esiason toils, a team that has had 11 straight nonwinning seasons under five coaches, a franchise 49 years removed from its last playoff victory. "There's a lot of history with this team, a lot of bad history," said middle linebacker Eric Hill. 30, last Thursday. "It's been seven years of getting my butt kicked."
This autumn, however, Esiason and the Cardinals are kicking back. He needed just 38 of his desired 45 seconds to march 66 yards and find wideout Marcus Dowdell on a 24-yard scoring pass that disposed of Philly, 36-30. The win, their third straight, vaulted the Cards to 6-6, tying them with upcoming opponent Minnesota for the final NFC playoff berth. It was a victory representative of character, something the Cardinals have lacked since migrating to Arizona from St. Louis nine years ago, and it reduced Cardinals cornerback Aeneas Williams to tears. "We finally have our eyes at water level," said Williams, as he slowly trod off the field, savoring the fans' cheers. "We're not above water yet, but we're no longer drowning, either."
Esiason, meanwhile, has ridden the most prolific three-game wave of his career, throwing for an astounding 1,149 yards (average yards per game: 383) and eight TDs. "It's nothing really miraculous," says Esiason of his surreal November. "Just athletes screaming for a chance to make plays."
In Arizona's first win of the season, a 28-14 defeat of New Orleans on Sept. 22, running back LeShon Johnson rushed for 214 yards. The next week Kent Graham, who had replaced Esiason at the helm after the Cards fluttered to an 0-3 start, threw four TD passes to beat the Rams in overtime, 31-28. Johnson and Graham have something in common with Esiason: They too have each been released from an NFL roster (the Packers' and the Lions', respectively) in the last 12 months. "Boomer is a winner, that's all there is to it," says Williams. "Players emulate what they see."
The 35-year-old Esiason has proved just as valuable off the field. On the September afternoon when he was demoted to second-string for the first time in his career, he was driving home from practice on Interstate 10 when he spotted Graham's car up ahead. Accelerating to pull alongside, Esiason called out, "How about we go get some dinner?"
"I'm too old and too tired to stab people in the back," says Esiason, who would reclaim the starter's role because of Graham's sprained right knee, "but Kent needed to hear that from me, face-to-face."
For the previous two years the Cardinals had followed the tone set by coach Buddy Ryan, who introduced himself to Cardinals fans by proclaiming, "You've got a winner in town." Ryan and his players then became more combative, if not more competitive. Minutes before the final game of Ryan's two-year, 12-20 campaign, a 37-13 loss at home to Dallas, Hill and then teammate Chadrick Brown, a defensive end, engaged in an all-out locker room fistfight. This on Christmas, a day when oversized men clad in red are supposed to be jolly.
One day later Ryan was fired, and in February, owner Bill Bidwill named Colts defensive coordinator Vince Tobin Arizona's new coach. Unassuming and detail-oriented, the 53-year-old Tobin imported 28 new players, Esiason chief among them, in an effort to purge the Cardinals of their negative attitude. It should be noted that Tobin's opening words as coach, blindly optimistic though they seemed at the time, were, "It's certainly great to be here."
It certainly is. Just ask Boomer.