Athlon sits down with the NFL analyst.
Boomer Esiason played his collegiate football at the University of Maryland, where he set numerous school passing records as a left-handed honorable mention All-America quarterback in 1982 and ’83. Chosen in the second round of the 1984 draft by the Cincinnati Bengals (and the first quarterback taken that year), Esiason played nine seasons in Cincinnati, earning the NFL’s MVP award in 1988 when he led the Bengals to the Super Bowl. He was traded in 1993 to his hometown New York Jets, for whom he played three seasons. He joined the Arizona Cardinals as a free agent in 1996 and retired after the following season.
For his NFL career, Esiason completed 57 percent of his passes for 247 touchdowns and nearly 38,000 yards. He was selected to four Pro Bowls and was named the Walter Payton Man of the Year in 1995 for his philanthropic work with the Boomer Esiason Foundation, which he established in 1993 to raise money and awareness for cystic fibrosis.
Today, Esiason is an analyst for “The NFL Today” on CBS, for “Monday Night Football” on Westwood One radio, and co-host of an A.M. sports-talk show on WFAN.
Athlon Sports: What’s the major storyline in the NFL this season?
Boomer Esiason: Ultimate parity. You have no team that has fewer than two losses. I think what you’re seeing is what the NFL hopes, and that is as many teams as you can possibly get in the playoff races until the end of the season. Right now, with the exception of maybe four teams, everybody still legitimately has a chance to make it to the playoffs, as odd as that sounds.
AS: To your point, two of what had appeared to be the strongest-looking teams, the Giants and the Steelers, lost decisively on the same day. So who is the best team in the NFL now?
Esiason: The notion of “Who is the best team in the NFL at the present moment” really doesn’t hold water because things can change on a weekly basis due to injury. In this league it’s a war of attrition. And the fact that they’re going to play 18 games is even more amazing when you watch what’s happening on the field.
AS: Is that surprising to you?
Esiason: It’s not surprising because in the salary-cap era, there are two things you have the cap for: One, to keep player costs down (even though when you look at what some of the players are making you say, “What! What are you talking about?”), and two, to create a level playing field. And even teams like Tampa Bay and Cincinnati and some other teams that don’t spend a lot of money, or have more money than they can spend, are still in the mix. Tampa Bay is a prime example of what can happen when you get a great quarterback, or a budding great quarterback, in Josh Freeman. They have probably the lowest payroll in the NFL, and yet they are right in the mix for a playoff spot as we speak.
AS: Does the salary cap work against sustained success?
Esiason: I don’t know if I agree with that. You do see the same superpowers it seems the last five years at the top, mainly because they have established, great quarterbacks. That’s Brady, Manning, and Roethlisberger. And because their defense has been so good for so long, the Baltimore Ravens are in that situation. It’s certainly important when you have a difference-maker at quarterback, because he’ll always keep you in games. But it’s nice to see some new teams, namely the Jets. New Orleans is also becoming a superpower since they brought in Drew Brees. And we’ll see San Diego back in the mix. I just think it’s great to see Kansas City and Oakland relevant again and their games meaning something. Houston had a dabble there with a little success. There are teams that are on the cusp that are going to be good for a little while, I think.
AS: Two years ago, you said that oversaturation was the NFL’s biggest challenge. Does that still hold, or does the NFL have bigger challenges now?
Esiason: With the NFL Network and DirecTV and all the different blog spots and the Internet and everything else, I still think that the game is woefully oversaturated. But you would never know it by the ratings. Thursday night ratings for the NFL Network, which is not in every house in America, still had one of the highest ratings in cable TV history. I think that speaks to the popularity of the NFL. There is some cannibalization that is going on; by going to 18 games you’ll not only add two more weeks of legitimate product but you’ll be able to spread some more of that over the NFL Network.
AS: There is a greater awareness now in the league of the danger of concussions and their long-term effects. But is the league putting too much emphasis on violent hits?
Esiason: Concussions have been a big thing for a long time, and I applaud the NFL for really putting them front and center. For a long time they had this attitude that it is not a significant issue. But as we all grow older and see the generation of football players that played before me and my generation, we can see the profound negative effects that hitting your head over and over can have. So, the NFL is doing everything it possibly can to protect the players and make sure that today’s players don’t deal with the same issues that yesteryear’s players are dealing with.
AS: And now the league is considering adding two more games to a violent sport. Does that make sense?
Esiason: Roger Goodell understands how violent this game is and I think it’s one of the reasons that they’re taking the significant steps to try to curtail the many vicious hits. It is something that is obviously at the forefront. As long as the players keep getting bigger and faster and more aggressive, injuries are going to play a profound part in the success of these football teams. And even if you do have a Peyton Manning on your team, with so many injuries around him and his current roster being depleted by injuries, I doubt that we’ll see him in this year’s Super Bowl.
AS: Who will we see in this year’s Super Bowl?
Esiason: If I had to place a bet on it right now -- which doesn’t really mean much -- I’m still saying that San Diego has a very good shot at being a very good team here in the second half of the season. They’ve lost games in some heartbreaking ways. But they have as good a defense as anyone right now and a quarterback and an offense that is as dynamic as anyone’s in the NFL. They’re going to get healthy, and I do think that they will be a force when it comes to the end.
AS: What about in the NFC?
Esiason: It’s probably going to be among New Orleans, Green Bay, and New York. If I could look in my crystal ball, I’d say that we’ll see Green Bay and San Diego in the Super Bowl.
AS: Not impressed with the Falcons?
Esiason: I think they have been really good at home. I’d like to see them do a little bit more on the road. I probably mistakenly left them off the list in the NFC, but I just think that when Green Bat is healthy, they are as good as here is in the NFL.
AS: If you were NFL commissioner for a day, what is the first move you would make?
Esiason: That’s a good question. I think I would do my damndest to change the completion/touchdown rule to make it easier for everybody to understand. And the reason I say that is because Calvin Johnson and the Detroit Lions were not given a touchdown in the opening game, yet Kevin Walter, the wide receiver for Houston, yesterday was given a touchdown. I didn’t really see a big difference in what happened between the two plays. There is a great amount of confusion over as to what constitutes a touchdown catch and what doesn’t.
AS: What about if you were an NFL GM: What current player would you build your team around?
Esiason: Peyton Manning. I’ve watched a lot of quarterbacks do a lot of great things in my career, as a player and as a broadcaster, but the things I have witnessed from him over the last two years have been nothing short of brilliant. Of those of us who have played the position and understand all that goes into the position -- on the field, off it, in the meeting and interview rooms, calling plays, knowing personnel, and reading defenses -- there has never been a quarterback in history who has done it the way he has done it and been as successful for as long as he has been. When all is said and done with, in my eyes he will be the single greatest football player that has ever played.
AS: Are you a fantasy football player?
Esiason: I have been in the past; this year, I’m not, and the only reason for that is because last year I had four teams in four different leagues and got burned out.
AS: It’s hard to keep track, right?
Esiason: (laughing) Oh, with the injuries and all the updates, it’s hard enough for us at “The NFL Today” to figure out who’s playing, and we’ve got up-to-the-minute knowledge, you know what I mean?
AS: What’s the biggest misperception the fans have about the game?
Esiason: That the players are inhuman, that they don’t have feelings that the fans do when their team loses.
AS: How’s your foundation doing?
Esiason: We’re doing well. We’re surpassing $85 million raised by the end of this year. We are giving millions of dollars away to cystic fibrosis patients for scholarships, organ donations, and lung transplants. We have put tens of millions of dollars into research grants and tens of millions of dollars into hospital support and patient support programs. I’m very proud of what we have accomplished. The best news of all is that my son is a sophomore at Boston College. He’s living, breathing proof that if you have a disability you can live life to the fullest and really become something special. The most important thing for me as a dad is watching my son grow into a young man.