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A New tune in New York
Sing it, Elton: B-B-B-Boomer and the Jets....
Last Thursday, Jet coach Bruce Coslet waited impatiently as his new quarterback, Boomer Esiason, acquired the day before from the Bengals, did a separate turn with each of nine New York TV reporters. Coslet was antsy because Esiason had some work to do. Moments after the last TV camera was switched off, Esiason and Coslet sat down for lunch at a pub near the Jets' training complex in Hempstead. N.Y., and even before the iced tea was served, Coslet said to Esiason, "Tell me everything about Eric Thomas."
Having traded for Esiason and having earlier acquired safety Ronnie Lott and defensive lineman Leonard Marshall in the free-agent market, the Jets were prepping for the arrival of Thomas, a free-agent cornerback with Cincinnati, who was to visit the Jets' facility on Friday. Esiason, who had played with Thomas for six years, gave Coslet a three-minute, nuts-and-bolts scouting report.
Last week, besides Thomas, the Jets hosted Bear fullback Brad Muster. Bill tackle Will Wolford and Cowboy wideout Kelvin Martin, making the team the busiest shopper in the NFL's three-week-old free-agent supermarket, "in this new system you really can't afford to waste a day," Coslet says. "This game is changing, and you'd better be ready to change with it."
How true. Free agency and the looming salary cap—in 1994 each team will probably have about $31 million to spend on player compensation—will shake the league to its roots. Long-term plans for winning, like those painstakingly formulated by the Bears and the Giants in the early '80s, are a thing of the past. Smart teams will take their best shots to win in the short run, because their good players will be regularly testing the market. That is why criticism of the Jets for signing older players (Lott is 33; Esiason and Marshall are 31) is ill informed. If New York can get a year or two out of this trio, it will be ahead of the curve in the new environment. "It's now like the college game, where you have guys for four years and then they leave." says Jet general manager Dick Steinberg. "What none of us in the league knows is how, especially with the salary cap, you can build a contender for the long haul."
His age aside, Esiason seems to be a curious choice. He has not been effective since 1989, his last standout year, and he was benched in favor of second-year man David Klingler late in this past season. But Coslet, who was the Bengals' offensive coordinator from '86 to '89, thinks that Esiason, who grew up in East Islip, Long Island, not far from the Jets' complex, can have a second career with New York. "I was with him when he was at his best." Coslet says. "I know the reasons for his decline. I watched every film of him the last two years, and he hasn't been accurate, but he has also been running for his life on every snap."
And no matter what you may have read, the Jets did not trade for Esiason because Eagle defensive end Reggie White, the NFL's most sought-after free agent, suggested that Esiason's acquisition would enhance New York's chances of signing him. The Jets had been talking to Cincinnati general manager Mike Brown about Esiason since January—offering quarterback Ken O'Brien and left tackle Jeff Criswell—but had not been able to conclude a deal.
Finally, when New York saw quarterback Vinny Testaverde, formerly of the Bucs, flirting with the Browns early last week—thus placing Tampa Bay coach and Esiason fan Sam Wyche in the market for his former quarterback at Cincinnati—the Jets figured they had better speed things up. So they offered the Bengals a third-round draft pick this year and a conditional second-round pick in '94, a selection Cincinnati will get only if Esiason starts at least half of the Jets' games and has a quarterback rating of 89 or better in 1993.
Now all Esiason has to prove is that the last few years have been an aberration. "Time will tell." says Esiason, who will make $3 million next season. "But I've got a lot of good football left in me. You'll see." The live-for-today Jets, in this brave new NFL world, hope he's right.