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the NFL

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.

WEARIN' O' THE GREEN

If the Redskins don't come up with an offer for White in the $4 million-a-year range—and it's starting to look as if they won't—he'll probably go to the Packers. In White's view there are three factors in Green Bay's favor: 1) coach Mike Holmgren and his staff, 2) young quarterback Brett Favre and 3) the expectation that the Packers will fly White to Milwaukee each Tuesday during the season so he can establish a ministry there that will tend to the poor of the inner city.

Last Thursday, Holmgren and his defensive coordinator, Ray Rhodes, flew to White's hometown of Knoxville, Tenn., so that White could get to know them. The two coaches heard White give a speech at a Kiwanis-club meeting, toured the city with their star recruit and then sat and talked with him for a couple of hours. White was quite taken with them. He was also assured that money would not be an obstacle. The Packers, a publicly owned team, have about $30 million in the bank, so coming up with $4 million or so a year for White will not be all that difficult.

Holmgren gets defensive when asked why Green Bay is suddenly a front-runner in the race for White. "Why not? That's the better question." he says. "We don't have to be anybody's poor stepchild. If we tell our players we're going to do everything possible to get to the Super Bowl—and we've told them that—then we'd be hypocritical not to pursue Reggie."

DISPATCHES

Early predictions: Mark Ingram, the underused former Giant wideout who last week signed with Miami, will become Dan Marino's go-to guy and a 70-catch Pro Bowler; new Buccaneer linebacker Hardy Nickerson. an active pursuer made for Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Floyd Peters's aggressive style, will lead the Bucs in tackles; pricey free-agent left tackle Don Maggs won't be the answer to Denver's question of how to keep the AFC West's prime pass rushers off John Elway, because money can't buy quickness. But the Broncos will be pleasantly surprised by the versatility of new workhorse running back Rod Bernstine, for whom 1,000 yards rushing and 60 receptions in '93 are realistic goals....

According to one minister in Harlem, the Jets have an important ally in their pursuit of White: "Reggie, it's not an accident that you're here." the minister boomed from the pulpit during White's visit to New York City. "This is divine intervention!"...

Carlton Bailey, a backup linebacker for the Bills in '92, didn't play a down in the Super Bowl but recently signed with the Giants for an average of $300,000 more a season than Lawrence Taylor made last year. When 49er president Carmen Policy heard the Bailey numbers, he said, "Excuse me, I have to go to the bathroom and throw up."...

Speaking of the Niners, they'll have trouble squeezing their generous payroll beneath the NFL-mandated cap in 1994. Policy estimates that San Francisco will be $10 million over the cap this year.

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JOHN IACONO

Esiason celebrated a Long Island reunion with his dad, Norman Sr.

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PETER READ MILLER

In forsaking the Chargers for the Broncos, Bernstine (82) joined the get-rich-quick club.

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