All through the NFL preseason friends and acquaintances would walk up to Boomer Esiason or call him on the phone and ask, "What's the deal, are you going to start this year?"

And Esiason, Cincinnati's second-year quarterback from Maryland, didn't know exactly how to answer. He understood the Bengals wanted to go with experience and not potential. And he knew that if the team got off to a good start, it would mean veteran Ken Anderson would remain in the lineup.

On the other hand, the club had made it known Esiason would be the quarterback of the future.

Four weeks into the season, he has the answer for his friends and even is providing a few for the Bengals. Esiason is Cincinnati's starting quarterback and has the second-highest pass-efficiency rate in the AFC, surpassed only by Dan Fouts.

In his two starts, he has thrown for an average of 252 yards and completed 63.3 percent of his passes. In three games played, he has thrown seven touchdowns and only two interceptions. Esiason, in fact, has thrown the same number of touchdowns as Dan Marino in almost half as many passes.

"In no way am I a Ken Anderson in his prime, not even close to that," Esiason said of the man who led Cincinnati to the 1982 Super Bowl.

Probably not. But he did complete 19 of 27 passes, three for touchdowns, Monday night to upset the Steelers in Pittsburgh and give the Bengals their first victory of the season.

Anderson started the first two games, and each time was relieved by backup Turk Schonert. The two combined to complete 54 percent of their passes for three touchdowns and no interceptions. But Cincinnati was still winless after three games.

"I know if we had gotten off to a good start I might not be playing," Esiason said late Wednesday night in a telephone conversation. "But once we hit 0-3, I guess the coaches said, 'Okay, we're 0-3 so let's see what this guy can do.'

"I feel like I know the offense this year," he said. "I know the plays to call, I read the defenses well. It was an incredible feeling I had on Monday night. I knew it was the way we should be playing. After the game, it was a feeling of relief. I felt so good for (Coach) Sam Wyche."

A year ago, in his rookie season, the Bengals started even worse. They lost five straight before Wyche went with Esiason, who led Cincinnati to a 13-3 victory over Houston, a win that triggered an 8-8 finish and nearly a trip to the playoffs.

"I'm 100 percent better than I was last year," Esiason said.

In Dallas, this would be a quarterback controversy. Anderson, 36, has been one of his generation's best passers and one of the best percentage passers of all-time. And behind him at the start of the season was the 28-year-old Schonert.

Esiason likens the situation to his days at Maryland when he roomed with backup quarterbacks Frank Reich and Stan Gelbaugh.

"Kenny and I get along really well," Esiason said. "I don't think he wants to go through the pressure of being the starting quarterback. He feels that if he can best help the team by coming in late in the game, or helping the young quarterbacks to mature, then he will make a major contribution that way.

"Turk wants to play," Esiason continued. "He feels short-changed and I can't blame him, to tell you the truth. But we don't let that spill over into our lives off the field."

Esiason credited Schonert with the call that led to one of his touchdown passes Monday night.

The 44-41 loss to San Diego two weeks ago, when Esiason passed for 320 yards and three touchdowns, was a day of sharply contrasting emotions. "I was happy because we put so many points on the board, but down because we lost," he said, "and because we made so many turnovers."

"It reminded me of the Maryland-Auburn game in 1983 when I had my best statistical day (a school-record 385 yards passing) but we lost (35-23). It was the same feeling."

Esiason said nobody has promised him the starting job forever. But his play thus far has given him reason to feel "I told you so" to the NFL general managers who supposedly bad-mouthed him down to being a second-round draft choice.

"So many things were said which had no truth or substance," Esiason said. "I had some difficult months from January through May in my senior year at Maryland. I grew up more in those four or five months than in my entire four years at Maryland.

"Some NFL people and some writers who had never met me were saying things that weren't true. The worst thing I ever heard about myself was that I was a headache and uncoachable.

"All I ever tried to do was what was expected of me and listen and learn from my coaches. It was ridiculous."