November 10, 2009

1996: Arizona’s Boomer Esiason Passes for 522 Yards in Wild Win Over Redskins

Boomer Esiason spent one of his 14 seasons in the NFL with the Arizona Cardinals, and for the most part it confirmed that, at age 35, his best years were behind him. The skills that had made him one of the league’s better quarterbacks in his prime had eroded, and he found himself in competition with journeyman Kent Graham for the starting job.

However, on November 10, 1996 he was in top form as the Cardinals took on the Washington Redskins at RFK Stadium in a Week 11 matchup. Arizona, at 3-6, was struggling under new Head Coach Vince Tobin, while the Redskins were 7-2, having reeled off seven consecutive wins after an opening day defeat before losing badly at Buffalo the previous week.

The first quarter passed quietly as the teams traded field goals. Washington RB Marc Logan scored the initial touchdown of the game in the second quarter on a 36-yard run, but the Cardinals scored the next ten points thanks to a 39-yard field goal by Kevin Butler and a 64-yard TD pass from Esiason to WR Marcus Dowdell. Scott Blanton kicked a 24-yard field goal and the score was tied at the half, 13-13.

Washington twice led by 14 points in the second half, scoring two touchdowns in the third quarter for a 27-13 margin and, after Cardinals FB Larry Centers scored from a yard out, by 34-20 when RB Terry Allen responded with a short TD run of his own. But in the fourth quarter, Boomer Esiason put on a phenomenal passing display. He threw TD passes of 13 yards to TE Johnny McWilliams and 12 yards to WR Anthony Edwards that knotted the score at 34-34 and forced the game into overtime, but that told only part of the story; in the fourth quarter and overtime periods alone he completed 23 of 35 passes for 351 yards and the two touchdowns.

The overtime period was certainly gut-wrenching for both teams. The Cardinals won the toss and Esiason drove the team to the Washington 15 yard line, but Butler missed a 32-yard field goal attempt. The Redskins were unable to capitalize and Arizona got the ball back, but a fumble turned the ball back over to Washington. It seemed as though the Redskins had won the game when Blanton kicked an apparent 38-yard field goal, but a holding call nullified the attempt and Blanton missed the ensuing follow-up kick from 48 yards.

With time running down in the overtime period, the Cardinals made it to the Washington 19 yard line and Kevin Butler again attempted a game-winning field goal, only to have it hit the left upright and bounce away. However, safety Darryl Morrison of the Redskins was flagged for being offside, and Butler finally ended the contest with a 32-yard field goal with only seconds remaining in the extra period.

Arizona accumulated 615 yards of total offense – the most ever surrendered in a game by the Redskins – in pulling out the 37-34 win. Most of it was accounted for by Boomer Esiason, who for the day completed 35 of 59 passes for 522 yards and three touchdowns, with four interceptions; the yardage total was the third highest ever attained by an NFL quarterback.

Larry Centers and WR Frank Sanders both caught six passes apiece, and Marcus Dowdell, who had scored on the first TD pass, had the most yards among the receivers with 92 on three receptions; WR Rob Moore was right behind with 91 yards, also on three catches. The efforts of Washington RB Terry Allen, who carried the ball 31 times for 124 yards and two scores, were overshadowed by Esiason’s heroics.

The Cardinals won their next two games and finished at 7-9, in fourth place in the NFC East. Washington lost four of the remaining six games to end up with a 9-7 record and third place in the division. When the two teams met again for the rematch in Phoenix, Arizona won again, although with Kent Graham at quarterback (accumulating far fewer passing yards).

For Boomer Esiason, the outstanding game at Washington was the high point of an ultimately disappointing season. The team went 3-5 in games he started, and competing with Graham did not sit well. When Coach Tobin designated Graham to be the starting quarterback for 1997, Esiason demanded to be released from the second year of his contract and returned to the team he had started with, the Cincinnati Bengals, for his final season.