Sports Vault: In Week 12 of the '97 season, Boomer came back to save the day

But then left for TV and broke fans' hearts

CINCINNATI -- The 1997 season was one of change for the Cincinnati Bengals. 

The team and Hamilton County had agreed to build Paul Brown Stadium. They started holding training camp at Georgetown College in Kentucky. And a young running back named Corey Dillon was stealing the headlines away from an otherwise dreary 1-7 start.

Then, with a little more than a month to go in the year, 36-year-old Boomer Esiason again became the quarterback in Cincinnati.

For the previous few seasons, Jeff Blake looked like he was entrenched as the team's leader and QB. He was a Pro Bowler in 1995, and was able to pull off an 8-8 season in 1996. But losing seven out of your first 10 games will get fans calling for a change. The coaches obliged.

"How the quarterback goes, the team goes," Coach Bruce Coslet told WCPO's John Popovich in an interview that year. 

 

"This type of thing has been happening here for the last 20 years," Blake said. "You just have to play through it -- continue to play and just hope everything works out for you."

It did not work out for him. And Esiason was reinstated as the team quarterback.

"Esiason took the reigns in Week 12 against the Pittsburgh Steelers," wrote Kyle Phelps of SB Nation's Cincyjungle.com. "His first game back with the team was a loss, but he led the team to a 4-1 record through the rest of the season, showing just how important of a player he could be to a team like the Bengals. And how important having a good quarterback is in general."

Quarterback Boomer Esiason of the Cincinnati Bengals tries to get away from defensive tackle Hollis Thomas of the Philadelphia Eagles during a game at Veterans Stadium on Nov. 30, 1997. The Eagles won the game 44-42.

He was actually better than good. After losing against Pittsburgh, the Bengals went 4-1 while Esiason tossed 11 touchdowns and just two interceptions. At the same time, Corey Dillon became a superstar at running back, thanks in part to Esiason's tutelage, and the team made it back to respectability by posting an overall 7-9 record. Esiason registered a 106.9 passer rating for the season.

And his last pass of the last game of the season has become legendary. In a 16-14 win over the Ravens at Cinergy Field, Esiason unloaded a 77-yard bomb to Darnay Scott for a touchdown that proved to be the difference in the game. 

No one knew it at the time, but it was the last pass Esiason would ever throw. Not a bad way to go out -- throwing a touchdown against a Marvin Lewis-led defense.

 

"Fans were optimistic about the team's chances going forward for the first time in years, and Esiason, in particular, had a blast that final season in Cincinnati," Phelps wrote.

"I really was close to coming back," Esiason told Paul Dehner Jr. of the Cincinnati Enquirer in 2016. "I loved my time that last year. Bruce Coslet was now my head coach and Kenny Anderson was my quarterback coach. It was the perfect situation for me: a veteran quarterback who knew the offense as much as the coaches did.

"Unfortunately for Jeff Blake," he continued, "he was struggling that year. As soon as the season was over, believe you me, I was so hyped and jacked and so proud of what we were able to accomplish, it really did take a lot to take me off the football field. I think I was a realist at that time. I remember telling Mike Brown, 'Look, if you want to give me some contract that I can't say no to, then I will come back and do that.'"

Unfortunately for Bengals fans, Esiason was also being courted by the staff of ABC's "Monday Night Football." For three straight years, he'd been offered an analyst gig. It became too much to turn down.

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason

"And if I didn't get it then, I don't know that I would have ever gotten it after that," he said. "It was a great run for me at the end of that season; my young teammates all bought into what I was selling. To watch guys like Corey Dillon and Ki-Jana Carter and James Hundon and Marco Battaglia and a host of guys get to another level that I don't think they thought was possible was probably one of the most satisfying aspects of finishing up as a Cincinnati Bengal."

Fans were left disappointed at what could've been.

"It's interesting that Esiason would say he was so close to coming back, which many Bengals fans would have loved, but he didn't, partly because he received a great opportunity to start his broadcast career with 'Monday Night Football' after the 1997 season concluded," Phelps wrote. "Unfortunately, the Bengals' contract offer wasn't enough for him to stave off his career change for another year."

As Esiason made a smooth transition into television, the team had trouble finding a replacement. First they tried Neil O'Donnell, who went 3-13. A slew of others followed, and the Bengals would not find the .500 mark as a team again until Marvin Lewis coached them to an 8-8 record in 2003.

"It's hard to blame Esiason for taking the 'Monday Night Football' job," Phelps wrote. "He was 37 at the time and the job was something that he just couldn't pass up, again. But it certainly would have been nice to see what he could have done with the team for another season or two."

At the start of the 1998 season, Esiason debuted as an ABC "Monday Night Football" analyst with Al Michaels and Dan Dierdorf, replacing the retired Frank Gifford.

He actually didn't last very long on the show; he was replaced after two seasons by comedian Dennis Miller (that experiment didn't last long, either).

Still, much the way it was in the NFL, Esiason just needed to find the right home. By 2002, he had joined CBS' "The NFL Today" show, where he established himself as a consistent voice. He also hosts a syndicated radio show. But his years with the Bengals will always be special.

"I personally loved every minute that I was there. Every minute," Esiason told the Enquirer's Jim Owczarski in July of this year. "Even the minutes where we lost, even the strike season to the Super Bowl year to the playoff year where Bo Jackson gets hurt in our game. There's so many memories there and really great memories. I have nothing but positive feelings towards the Brown family, towards the Cincinnati Bengals and their fan base, the city. Everything that goes into analyzing a career and looking back on it is -- I don't have any regrets. It's regretful we didn't win the Super Bowl, of course, but for 10 years it was great."

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