Boomer Esiason is keeping company with all the proper NFL people these days. Statistically, he is hobnobbing with Joe Montana, Jim McMahon and Dan Fouts at the top of the quarterback ratings. Practically, he often squeezes among the human pillars who determine important matters ranging from his place in football history to whether he leaves games with all his limbs intact.

"He'll go into the offensive-line meetings and watch film with them," said Cincinnati Bengals Coach Sam Wyche. "In that regard, John Madden told me Boomer reminds him of Kenny Stabler. He quoted Stabler (when Madden coached Stabler and the Raiders) as saying: 'I know I can throw. I need to learn the running game, about the timing with the blockers.'

"Boomer's laying the right kind of foundation."

Between scoops of yogurt earlier in the week, Wyche was laughing about NFL nourishment: "We're first in our division -- and last." Everybody in the NFC Central is 4-5, so Boomer and his Bengals buddies can break a wee bit ahead of Cleveland Sunday with something resembling a repeat of his exceptional play when the teams last met, last season.

"That's my most vivid memory of Boomer," Wyche said. "We needed to win, in Cleveland, to have any chance to win the division -- and we started Turk (Schonert). The Browns go up, 17-7, and Turk gets hurt. So (rookie) Boomer's in the game -- and we win it, in overtime.

"He pulls off two long drives in the last six minutes (of regulation). We get a field goal out of the first, then block a punt and score with a second to go. We score on a play Boomer hasn't practiced." That was a tackle-eligible play, from the Cleveland one; the primary receiver wasn't too hard to find, he being 278-pound Anthony Munoz.

That was his coach's mental highlight film. Esiason has an equally vivid recollection.

"The next week," he said, "I got yanked in the first quarter."

Wyche would not use the hook nearly so soon, now that Esiason is atop the AFC quarterback ratings and second in the entire league. After nine games, he has the second-most touchdown passes in the league (16) and has completed nearly 60 percent of his 235 passes.

"It's like my last year at Maryland," he said. "I now have a total understanding of the offense. I wasn't real comfortable last season, but I now know exactly where to go on a blitz. I've seen everything: strong-safety blitzes, weak-safety blitzes, linebacker blitzes, overloads to one side. Teams now are starting to play football, instead of fooling around."

Football is a never-ending gamble, with winners determined after plays, games and seasons. At this moment in NFL time, Esiason is making the Redskins' decision to pass on him in the 1984 draft seem unwise. The Redskins figured they did not need immediate quarterback insurance for Joe Theismann and later chose a fellow aglow with potential: Jay Schroeder.

A few weeks after that draft, the Raiders' Al Davis volunteered that Schroeder ultimately might prove an exceptional steal. Impatient Washingtonians figure Esiason's maturity already qualifies Cincinnati for heist of the year honors. But 27 teams other than the Redskins, including the Bengals, also undervalued him in the first round.

Esiason's quarterback rating is 90.8. He has thrown twice as many touchdown passes as interceptions. Let's see. Where might we find Theismann just now? Second to last in the NFC. Behind Lynn Dickey of the Packers, behind David Wilson of the Saints, and just ahead of David Archer of the futile Falcons.

Ironic symmetry: Esiason is second among all quarterbacks; Theismann is second from the bottom in the NFC, at 60.2, with 13 interceptions and six touchdown passes. Still, as Theismann surely will snort, his team is one game ahead of Esiason's.

"I'd love to have stayed in the area," Esiason said, adding diplomatically: "At the time, they didn't need somebody like me. They didn't need any static. They figured that's what would have come with me, static. But nothing of the sort happened here. They had an established quarterback (Ken Anderson) and (veteran backup) Turk. There was no static whatsoever."

Esiason dearly wanted to play for the Colts. The No. 7 he wears honors Bert Jones. Probably, he thinks, his chances of becoming a Colt vanished the night Robert Irsay ordered the team to steal away from Baltimore.

Former quarterback Wyche personally scouted Esiason and graded him high both on ability and savvy. In addition to whether a quarterback can throw a deep-out pattern with no appreciable hang time, Wyche wants a sense of how he thinks under pressure.

Nobody ever questioned Esiason's arm. Even on a cool and windy tryout day, his strength was obvious to a coach paid to be skeptical. Then Wyche said something like: "So, Boomer, we've got a short sideline pass called, but the defense rotates that way and cuts off your primary man. Whatcha gonna do?" Whatever he said to that and other questions impressed Wyche.

"He's proven to be what we thought he might be," Wyche said. "A gritty quarterback."