Now the Bengals are 6-0, and much of the credit must go to Boomer Esiason, who has been the best quarterback in the AFC—maybe in the whole league—this year. Esiason always was an opportunistic player, a down-the-field thrower, and he followed a fine season in 1985 with a Pro Bowl year in '86. He slipped in '87, when he threw more interceptions (19) than TD passes (16). He was pressing. "We used to call him Freddy Krueger, of Nightmare on Elm Street," says flanker Eddie Brown, "because he was wild. His passes sailed."
"You know how children can be cruel," says Wyche. "Last year a lot of cruel things were said in the locker room. Boomer's a very solid person. He does a lot in the community. He was trying to make things happen. He's as competitive as any player in the game. Now he's getting the ball where he wants it."
And he's doing it without losing distance. Against the Jets he followed those sorry first three series with a 60-yard touchdown pass to Brown, who finished the game with five receptions for 103 yards. After throwing an eight-yarder to Brown for another TD, Esiason found Tim McGee, the split end, for a 38-yard score. Esiason's 10 completions for the day averaged 22 yards.
He has thrown four touchdown passes this season for 60 yards or more—Brown and McGee both average more than 20 yards per catch—and still leads the NFL in rating points, which are keyed to percentage of completions. He has 15 TD passes and only three interceptions. "The great thing about Boomer is the way he can sense pressure and slide in the pocket to buy time until his receivers get open," says Wyche. "It's a knack."
Esiason is 6'5", 225 pounds, and when he decides to take off, he makes people pay. He scrambled three times on Sunday for 61 yards, lowering his shoulder each time. No slides.
Esiason is only one of Cincinnati's offensive weapons. For years the most solid part of the team was the offensive line, which featured Pro Bowlers Anthony Munoz and Max Montoya, who are in their ninth and 10th years, respectively. The line is even better now. "I've never put grades up on the board like these," says line coach Jim McNally, as he points to a row of numbers. The new star is 6'6", 290-pound right tackle Joe Walter, who's also known as John Law because of his long arms. In his last three games Walter has not allowed Reggie White, Howie Long or Mark Gastineau a sack.
The Bengal linemen can also go shoulder-to-shoulder and, as McNally says, "mush it" down the field with drive blocking. In two of the last three games the ground attack has produced more than 200 yards. The Bengals put Sunday's game away in the fourth quarter with a 14-play, 89-yard TD drive that took 7:45 off the clock and featured only two passes—for one yard. James Brooks, Cincinnati's fine all-purpose back, was out with a broken hand, but 232-pound rookie Ickey Woods rushed for 139 yards on 30 carries.
The Bengals have always had offensive firepower. What used to hurt them the most were defensive lapses, particularly late in games. "We were always a statistic-oriented defense," said Williams. "We figured, well, if we hold a team to X number of yards and X average per rush, we should win X number of games. Now the only stats we keep are turnovers and points allowed."
In the 21-14 opening-day victory over Phoenix, Cincinnati twice held the Cardinals on first-and-goal from the one-yard line, and the Bengals' new pass-rushing star, Jason Buck, sacked quarterback Neil Lomax at the end. A four-point win over Philadelphia the next week ended with a fourth-down pass by the Eagles' Randall Cunningham sailing incomplete in the end zone. Against the Steelers, right cornerback Eric Thomas intercepted a pass on the Bengals' eight to preserve a five-point victory. Cincinnati mushed past the Cleveland Browns with 213 yards rushing, and in a 45-21 rout of the Los Angeles Raiders two weeks ago, the Bengals piled up 496 yards of offense.
The offense and defense contributed equally to the win over the Jets. The Bengals had 402 yards against the AFC's top-ranked defense and held the No. 2 offense to 226 yards. Buck. a 255-pound speed rusher, constantly pressured quarterback Ken O'Brien, whose longest completion was 15 yards. He was repeatedly forced to go to dump-offs and short passes off a quick drop.