Since joining the Cincinnati Bengals in 1984 Draft, Boomer Esiason never really left the NFL. After his 14-year run as a quarterback to the Bengals, Jets, Cardinals, and Bengals again, Esiason moved to the analysts' box, working now for CBS's NFL Today while also co-hosting the WFAN morning sports show Boomer and Carton. The former NFL MVP shared his take on the recent rule changes protecting players, the role of fantasy football, and why parents should let their kids play ball.
What are some of the biggest changes happening right now compared to when you were playing?
The concussion lawsuits and significant rule changes to protect the players from themselves are adding more offense in the league. The quarterback doesn't get nearly hit as much as he did back when I played. I think that all has been good for the NFL, good for the game.
Is there any specific rule change that you think really made a difference?
Two in my estimation. The pass interference rules and the illegal contact and defensive holding to allow wide receivers and tight ends to roam free 20 yard down without the initial contact or the holding that went on when we played.
What we've seen from those rule changes is a much higher completion percentage from quarterbacks. A 3,000 yard season, which was great when we played, now goes to a 4,000 yard season. Now we're starting to even see 5,000 yards.
That's a big difference.
The safeties I played against — whether it be Rodney Harrison, Bernard Pollard, or Ronnie Lott — could throw themselves helmet-first into the receiver or into the ribs of a wide receiver, try to break a rib or knock the wind out of them, and let them know that they're going to get hit when they come into the secondary. Now those hits come with consequences, not only 15-yard penalties but huge fines and suspensions.
You said that change has impacted the game in a good way. How?
Now those safeties and linebackers have to think twice about hitting a guy that is exposed because they know they're going to get money taken out of their pockets. All of a sudden the secondary of all these different defenses becomes a playground for wide receivers and tight ends. And that's why guys like Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski become so completely uncoverable. Who the hell can cover them? The moment they get five yards down the field, the defense can't put their hands on them.
How are defenses coping with that?
I think the proliferation of bigger safeties, Kam Chancellor types. The 6'1"s the 6'2"s that can run like tight ends. If I'm a defensive coordinator I'm trying to find these safeties that aren't just good run defenders and tacklers, but they're the next step up from that middle linebacker that is Ray Lewis. You have to find a guy that can hit and run like Ray Lewis but also has the athleticism to stay with these basketball players turned tight ends. When you have guys who are 6'5" and 255 pounds that are running 4.6 40s and they're running down the field, you better have safeties that can stay with them — a 37” vertical jump, long arms, speed to be able to stay with them, and the athletic ability to go up and make a play on the ball without committing a penalty.
Who's suffering with the rule changes?
The conventional fullback and the running back is going by the wayside. Teams don't really use them anymore. The Adrian Petersons and the Chris Johnsons of the world are less important. Compared to all these great running backs of yesteryear, you might only have one or two of them now because because of the advent of those new guys and how quick they strike. Those guys are in the NFL and because of the physical pounding that these running backs take. The days of the Adrian Peterson types making eight million dollars a year or even 10 are going to be very few and far between.
It seems like the changes made for a more pass-happy game. What has this done to the game overall?
It has enhanced fantasy football first and foremost. The growth of fantasy football to me in itself is mind-blowing. All you have to do is Google fantasy football and look at all the different leagues and their spin. It tells you exactly where the league has been going and where its headed. It's all about offensive numbers. It's all about that spectacular seven-touchdown game that Peyton Manning had in Week 1 last year. I mean he did that against the Baltimore Ravens of all teams.
And the fans love it. You get the highlight reels. You get the spectacular deep throws.
I work on Sundays and the highlight packages we do are condensed because we only have so much time. But fans who sit at home and watch that freaking Red Zone channel on the big screen, that's like coke to a cokehead. It's just so addicting, especially if you're a fantasy football player — like my son is in five different fantasy football leagues and he's 23 years old. That is the money spot for the NFL.
Because all those guys will be tuning in.
The NFL has been so far out in front of it and amazing in terms of attracting new fans and creating new opportunities for fans to be part of something. It's due to the offense and the personalities and the numbers that are being put up. It's really a testament to the people that run the NFL.
Do you think that the league sees what's happening in fantasy football and changes its rule?
I think it's an unintended consequence that the rules changes have really impacted positively fantasy football.
And if you were playing now with these role changes?
I'd feel like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. I'd want to play until I was 45. Assuming they were paying me 20 million dollars a year. When I hear Tom Brady and Manning say, 'we still want to play. We still want to play.' I can totally understand that.
As fans we'll never have any clue what's its like to be hit in a game, but we watch and it's this weird contradiction — everyone loves this game, but everyone gets fined for playing the game well and hitting. You can't have it both ways.
It's kind of funny. I get a lot of my friends who have kids nine, 10 years old and the moms don't want the kids playing football. My friends either played in high school or college. Well I say, 'are you going to give your kid a smartphone?' 'Yeah we are going to give our kid a smartphone.' I can guaranteed you that kid is going to be behind the wheel of a car and texting one day, and he is more apt to kill himself doing that than he ever would playing football.
I used to say to the mom when I know the dad played football at some level, 'there's a reason you fell in love with your husband and the reason you fell in love with your husband is because your husband became a man as a football player. You learn responsibilities, dedication, teamwork, discipline; you learn to fight through adversity and pain. All of those attributes that you love about your husband came because he was a football player along the lines. And I think that's what you want your son to be. You want your son to be that person and to learn all those virtues and learn life is not easy.' Then I usually convince those parents 'yeah I guess I'll let him play football then. And I wont give them a smart phone.'