BACK TO BASICS

Spurred on by an underwear endorsement deal, Cincinnati's Boomer Esiason toned up. Now he and other ailing quarterbacks must show their wares in camp
August 06, 1989

Thirteen daysbefore the Cincinnati Bengals lost the Super Bowl 20-16 to the San Francisco49ers last January, quarterback Boomer Esiason got up at 6 a.m. and poured hisbruised body into the back of a limousine. His left shoulder pulsed. His rightankle throbbed. On the drive to the studios of Cincinnati's ABC-TV affiliatefor an appearance on Good Morning America, Esiason said, "They ought togive us and the 49ers next year off. Do you have any idea how beat up weare?" He talked some more as the limousine made its way through thesleeping town, and then he announced, "God, I feel like crap."

Fast forward toJuly 21, the night before the Bengals reported to training camp. Esiason andhis wife, Cheryl, joined Bengal running back Stanford Jennings and his wife,Kathy, at a sort of last supper at the group's favorite Cincinnati restaurant,The Precinct. But Esiason wasn't morbid about spending his next month in acinder-block dorm room at steamy Wilmington (Ohio) College. "I can'twait," he said. "I don't think I've ever looked forward to a seasonlike I have this one."

Sitting acrossthe table, Jennings smiled. He rooms with Esiason during the summer and on theroad. In his most bombastic World Wrestling Federation voice, Jennings turnedto a visitor and said, "The blond bombah is back."

The Bengals canonly hope so. This NFL preseason is full of questions about the health ofimportant quarterbacks: Denver's John Elway had arthroscopic surgery on histhrowing elbow after last season; Phoenix's Neil Lomax has a severely arthritichip; Washington's Doug Williams landed in the hospital last week with a painfulback; the Jets' Ken O'Brien has a tender right biceps which plagued him lastseason. But of all the quarterback ailments, Esiason's tired shoulder is themost mysterious.

Tired shoulder.That's the diagnosis, because Esiason and the Bengals' doctors don't know whatelse to call it. They could find nothing structurally wrong with the shoulder,and after an off-season of rest and exercise and more rest and someweightlifting (spurred on by an underwear commercial), the Bengals and Esiasonwere confident last week that the blond bombah indeed would be O.K. "Maybehe won't have the 100-mph fastball anymore," says Bengal assistant generalmanager Mike Brown. "Maybe it'll be 92. But I think he can be just aseffective."

Esiason was neverparticularly worried about the pain in his shoulder. And as he walked off thefield after Cincinnati's first full-squad practice last Thursday, any doubts hehad about the shoulder seemed removed. He had thrown the ball at full speed forthe first time since Super Bowl XXIII, and a teammate had said to him,"God, you haven't thrown like that in three years."

For 16 weeksafter the Super Bowl, however, Esiason didn't throw a football; for much ofthat time he couldn't lift his left arm above his head. No one is sure how itstarted, but the pain arrived late last year. Muscle fatigue, the Bengalsthought. In the playoffs he just was not the same man who had led the AFC inpassing for 16 weeks, led the NFL in passer rating (97.4) and led the Bengalsto 59 touchdowns. He capped a disappointing postseason (29 for 64, onetouchdown, 48.0 rating) with an 11-for-25 day in Miami. "Boomer was hurt,and we weren't the team we'd been because of that," Brown says.

In late February,Esiason was in New York to tape a cameo appearance on the TV soap All MyChildren. Throb, throb, throb, said the shoulder. In pain, Esiason called oneof the Bengal physicians, Robert Heidt Jr., in Cincinnati and screamed,"What the hell's wrong with my shoulder?" No one knew. The Bengaldoctors prescribed rest, then therapy. "The pain was the worst when I laydown to sleep," Esiason says. "It was like bam, bam,bam—throbbing."

Though this waspotentially a career-threatening injury, Cheryl says, "I never saw himpanicky." That has been Esiason's history. "I wasn't going tooverreact," he says. "Why should I? I've been hurt all my life atdifferent times, and I've always come back."

TheEsiason-Jennings foursome moved from The Precinct to poolside at Boomer'snorthern Kentucky home. There he told how he has spent the last several months.Boomer had never done much about conditioning in previous off-seasons. Thisspring was different. "In May," he said, "I really started workingout and lifting weights."

"Tell him thereal reason," Cheryl said. In the growing darkness, a faint blush came overBoomer's face. "I have to admit I was motivated a little by the underwearcommercial."

An underwearcompany had signed Esiason to model its briefs, and a three-day photo shoot wasscheduled for late June. Esiason crash-dieted, losing 17 pounds, and startedlifting weights. In New York before the underwear shoot, he worked out atseveral gyms near his hotel in midtown and he even threw the football aroundone morning.

The shoulder feltbetter, but Esiason never cut it loose. He tossed the ball lightly at theBengal practice facility in mid-July. But until he went to training camp inWilmington last week, he didn't know if he would be O.K. By week's end thesigns were encouraging. "He's taking it very carefully, and the doctors sayit'll be all right," says head coach Sam Wyche. "But," he adds,echoing the thoughts of everyone in the organization, "is there somethingin there we don't know about?"

The mysterieslinger about the other quarterbacks too. Elway had the bursa sac removed fromhis aching right elbow in January. He played like a sore-armed quarterback lastseason, throwing 19 interceptions and passing for only 17 touchdowns. But helooked very effective at the Bronco camp in Greeley, Colo., last week. "Ihaven't had any problems. The elbow's good," Elway said. He startedthrowing in April, and now he says his right arm is pain-free.

Lomax had troublewalking without discomfort through part of the off-season, forcing the Cards tosign journeyman Gary Hogeboom to an above-market $800,000-a-year contract andto draft Washington State quarterback Timm Rosenbach in the July supplementaldraft. The cartilage is nearly worn away in Lomax's left hip joint, and heknows that a hip replacement may eventually be needed. Privately, the Cardinalshave serious doubts that Lomax will ever play again. "It's very unsettlingfor everyone in the organization, wondering if the next hit or the next gamewill be the one to end Lomax's career," said trainer John Omohundro. Lomaxis working out cautiously at the Cards' camp in Flagstaff, Ariz., and heexpects to play in the final two preseason games to determine his readiness."I've put in too much work to tell [general manager] Larry Wilson, Hey, Ican't go," Lomax says.

This is the timeof year, of course, for quarterbacks to talk bravely. The true test for Esiasonand his rehabilitating peers will come in September.

BAD MOONRISON

How slow arenegotiations going with first-round rookies? Last year six of the 27first-round draft picks remained unsigned by July 30. This year 23 of 28 werestill out on the same date. The first-round logjam has been caused not so muchby the $11 million deal between Dallas and No. 1 pick Troy Aikman—or the $4.1million the Cowboys gave last week to their other rookie quarterback, SteveWalsh—as by the contract awarded to the 22nd pick in the first round, widereceiver Andre Rison. On May 2, Rison and the Indianapolis Colts agreed to afive-year contract worth $2.58 million, which includes a signing bonus of$890,000, an amount that in the past would have gone to only a high first-roundpick. The chill from that deal is still being felt. "You have to guardagainst losing your sanity because somebody makes a mistake inIndianapolis," says Chicago personnel boss Bill Tobin.

The Colts likethe pact because it includes an unprecedented non-renegotiation clause. IfRison tries to open the contract before it expires, after the 1993 season,he'll incur a $1 million penalty. The Colts are counting on Rison, who averaged23.9 yards a catch in his last two years at Michigan State, to become theirbig-play receiver. "You tell me, if he's a Pro Bowl player in a couple ofyears, that this isn't a good deal," says Colt coach Ron Meyer.

"They did mea favor, I did them a favor," says Rison. "Nobody down at 22 ever getsa deal like that. So I gave them five years. It's good for both sides, plus I'mhere early, and I know the system."

How silly aresome of the standoffs between rookies and their teams? Harold Daniels, theagent for Pittsburgh's top pick—running back Tim Worley—asked the Steelers fora five-year contract at $9.2 million. The Steelers countered with an offer offour years, $1.6 million. The Steelers privately say they're being ridiculousbecause Daniels is being preposterous.

A FEW GOODMEN

The consequencesof the new roster limit have become apparent. Teams now can't have more than 80players under contract after June 1, forcing many teams to enter training campwith 30 or 40 fewer players than they have in the past. Compounding the rosterproblem are new rules governing the injured-reserve list. Starting this year, aplayer placed on injured reserve in the preseason can't be activated during theseason. Last year the player could be activated after the sixth week of theregular season. So teams will have to carry more players who are hurt andtemporarily unable to play. Here is how some teams are reacting to this newera:

•Kansas City,which had 80 players signed by the start of camp, suspended negotiations withsome unsigned rookies and free agents because the Chiefs wanted to evaluate theunproven players already in camp. "Now it's the agents' turn to hurry upand wait," says Kansas City general manager Carl Peterson.

•Washington hadto cut three free agents before they ever put on training camp pads. On July24, before participating in his first Redskins practice, rookie wide receiverCedric Gordon awakened to the news that he would be cut if veteran RickySanders signed and showed up in camp. Sanders came. Gordon left. Coach JoeGibbs stewed. "You tell three guys who haven't even had a chance to get onthe field that they're cut," said Gibbs. "You explain that to me. Howdoes that make a lot of sense?"

•Pittsburgh coachChuck Noll, who never scrimmaged against another team in 20 previous seasons asthe Steelers' coach, had two controlled practices with Washington last week.Many other teams also went head-to-head. "With the 80-man rule, you have topractice with another team," says Peterson. "I think it's a phenomenonyou're going to see more and more of."

•Los Angeles Ramcoach John Robinson thinks that the low roster numbers might force teams todrop training camp and simply report to their regular-season facilities inJuly. "To hit people twice a day now is not appropriate," Robinsonsays. "The need to avoid injury is more and more important."

THE FINKSWAIT

New OrleansSaints president Jim Finks will almost certainly remain in the race to becomethe next NFL commissioner. On July 6 Finks fell three votes short of beingnamed to the job by the league's owners. Then Finks saw the selection processreopened and delayed until at least mid-August, a result of divisions among theowners that seemed to have nothing to do with him. Finks's frustration was sogreat he came close to resigning his candidacy. Now he has reconsidered. Fourof the six members of the present search committee voted for Finks in the July6 election meeting. The two others—Viking president Mike Lynn and Seahawk ownerKen Behring—were among the 11 owners who banded together to block Finks thefirst time around, but they say they had no objection to the man, only to theprocedures of the original committee.

Finks hasconsistently refused to campaign for the job, but he came close to doing thatlast week, while flying to his club's training camp in La Crosse, Wis. "I'mnot bitter," he said. "But whether it's me or someone else who gets thejob, I think it really has to be someone who knows the business and knows thepersonalities of the game very well. And it has to be someone who's notbeholden to one or two or three or five or a bloc of people in the league.

"This maysound a bit self-centered," Finks said. "But if you bring a man in fromthe outside to do this job, all he's going to know is what he's told." Ofthe six candidates who are under consideration by the search committee, onlyFinks is an experienced football man.

JOE WON'T GO

With three SuperBowl victories behind him, 49er quarterback Joe Montana, 33, might be thoughtto be cruising toward retirement. Not so, he says. He plans to complete theremaining four years on his contract, in spite of twice having had arthroscopicsurgery on his left knee—including one in May—and a major back operation, in1986, to remove a ruptured disc. Does Montana seriously think he can play fourmore years? "That's my goal," he says. "There's no reason why Ican't. I feel great. I think my body can take it."

Montana'scontract, which was extended for three years last November, will pay him $2.55million in each of the 1990, '91 and '92 seasons. But he has to play to makethat $7.65 million. San Francisco general manager John McVay is one of the fewfront-office people who believe Montana can do it. Says McVay, "Our doctorI Michael Dillingham] told me, 'He knows more about taking care of his backthan most back therapists.' "

DISPATCHES

The Cowboysaren't getting the rush of offers they expected for Steve Walsh. But they're inno hurry. His four-year, $4.1 million contract is actually payable over sixyears, with only $400,000 due in 1989—that's basically the cost of a backupquarterback.... Blown contract clause of the summer: Perennially overweightguard Nate Newton of Dallas would have earned $50,000 if he had reported tocamp under his club-prescribed weight of 315. On Saturday, he weighed in at325. "I don't need the money," Newton says.... The Steelers haven'tused the shotgun formation since Chuck Noll became coach in 1969. But with themobile Bubby Brister at quarterback, they're now practicing it.... JimMcMahon's kinesiologist, Bob Gajda, says the Bears quarterback is in the bestshape of his life despite off-season surgery on his right knee. Look forMcMahon and coach Mike Ditka to make peace and for McMahon to start inSeptember.

HE'S DIALING FOR DOLLARS

Leigh Steinberg lives on the telephone. On each of thefive floors of his office-part-time home in Berkeley, Calif., there are phonecords that reach out to decks overlooking the Bay; he's on the phones fromshortly after he wakes up at 6:30 until shortly before he sleeps after the latesports on TV. When Steinberg was negotiating rookie quarterback Troy Aikman'scontract with the Dallas Cowboys this spring, he used home phones, car phones,portable phones, airport phones, airplane phones, rental-car phones and aDonald Duck pay phone at Disneyland.

Driving in Oakland one April day, Steinberg wasnegotiating some final points of the Aikman contract by car phone. The Cowboyshad put more than $10 million on the table by then, but Steinberg was tryinghard to push the figure over $11 million. "These car phones are supposed tobe private," Steinberg said last week. "But all of a sudden a voicebursts into the middle of the negotiations and some guy says, "Listen,buddy, if you don't want the ten-and-a-half million, I'll take it.' "

Steinberg got Aikman $11.037 million, over six years,but that was only one of the agent's achievements this off-season. Six of the16 NFL quarterbacks whose contracts average more than $1 million a year areSteinberg clients (see chart), including Minnesota's Wade Wilson, who signed afour-year agreement for $4.35 million on Sunday. Four of these Steinbergmillionaires made their big hits in a dizzying month of negotiations thisspring that virtually rebuilt the salary structure for NFL quarterbacks.

From March 19 to April 20, Steinberg signed NewEngland's Tony Eason, the Jets' Ken O'Brien, Houston's Warren Moon and Aikmanto deals that covered 16 years and were worth $27,662 million—more than $1.7million per year per player, on average. Eason played in only six games in 1987and 1988 because of nagging injuries, but his new two-year contract with thePatriots will give him $138,000 more this year than last. Moon's five-year, $10million contract with the Oilers is guaranteed, a rarity in the NFL, and hewill be making $4 million a year by the time the deal runs out in 1993—when heturns 37.

Eason signed first, after the Pats' new owner, VictorKiam, interceded. Kiam was wary of giving a significant raise to a guy whohadn't contributed much since 1986. In response, Steinberg offered Kiam thisanalogy: "Suppose you had a ditchdigger who was one of the bestditchdiggers there is, and through no fault of his own he was covered by alandslide of dirt. He was disabled for two years, then came back ready andhealthy to work. He should make what his ditchdigger peers make." Bingo.Agreement on the contract—two years for $2.35 million—was reached that day.

O'Brien had biceps tendinitis in his throwing arm lastseason, and it cost him his role as the Jets' starter in the middle of theyear. But O'Brien, whose contract had expired, was healthy enough to attractsome attention as a free agent. On March 31, O'Brien closed a three-year dealfor more than $4 million—and the Jets threw in $75,000 to pay part of adisability insurance policy. A week later, Steinberg struck the Moon deal withHouston. It turned on the fact that the Oilers believe they are poised to makea serious championship run, and Moon was a Pro Bowl player last year.

Aikman's contract was tougher to get. Dallas's firstoffer, made before the Cowboys had committed to take Aikman as the No. 1 pickin this year's draft, was to match Tampa Bay quarterback Vinny Testaverde'scontract, plus a dollar. In other words, six years for $8,200,001. But in earlyApril, Steinberg overheard Cowboy owner Jerry Jones tell a fan in theDallas-Ft. Worth Airport that the team would take Aikman in the draft.Steinberg's approach became: You're going to draft him, so let's get seriousabout money. The final negotiating session was held on April 20 at 7 a.m. inThousand Oaks, Calif., where Steinberg and Aikman talked, by a satellite-TVlink, to Jones's side in Dallas. "Ultramodern negotiations," Steinbergsays. "We used fax machines, car phones, satellites."

Steinberg's quarterback talks weren't finished. He andtwo associates, Jeff Moorad and Steve Baker, were busy until two one morning inBerkeley last week, brainstorming on the Wilson deal. But Steinberg's mostintense negotiating weeks were over. "I don't think I ever had more thanfour or five hours of sleep a night for six weeks, and many nights I wentwithout it," says Steinberg, whose standard 4% cut earned him well over $1million on that $27 million worth of business. "But it wasexhilarating."

PHOTOANDY HAYT

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