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Don't judge Beathard by Ryan Leaf debacle

By HUBERT MIZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 4, 2000


Bobby Beathard is neither crapshooter nor Everest climber, but the man is an adventurer, even a gambler, at heart.

Surfer Bob was a nonconformist pro football GM, renowned, then considerably castigated, always betting on the now, eschewing the drafty future.

But it's unfair, even dead wrong, upon Beathard's retirement, to begin his NFL epitaph with Ryan Leaf, Super Flop. A lifetime of solid work should not be trampled by an ill-fated, shoot-the-works 1998 maneuver, snagging a celebrated college quarterback who would plunge into self-destructive underachieving.

Embrace total evidence. In Miami, Beathard's personnel wizardry helped the Dolphins win Super Bowls VII and VIII. In Washington, his masterworks were retooling an aging Redskins roster, creating the kings of Super Bowls XVII and XXII. Funny, if he had quit at age 58, after one last remarkable achievement -- lifting the lukewarm 1994 San Diego Chargers to Super Bowl XXIX -- by now we would be waxing ceremonial on Canton front steps, ready to cheer Bobby into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

In part, my defense of Beathard is because I like the man. Never had a conversation with him that wasn't graced by laughter. Bobby worked at being available. Quick to share knowledge and insights. Living clean, strong and extraordinarily healthy life. Eating right. Running. Surfing. Biking.

But in this game of autumn, a falling Leaf could be the Hall of Fame bust buster. For a generation, Beathard's philosophy was to leverage tomorrow, trading future No. 1 picks in search of immediate aces. For years, it worked. Lately, he has been burned. Bitten. Belittled.

Tampa Bay was a beneficiary of Boss Charger's quick-draw mentality. Most notably in last month's draft. Two years ago, Beathard traded his top 2000 pick, getting the Bucs' 1998 second-rounder, which he spent on Stephen F. Austin wide receiver Mikhael Ricks.

Packaging that No. 1 from San Diego with their own first-round choice, the Bucs traded with the New York Jets for Keyshawn Johnson. Tampa Bay fans can address thank you notes to Surfer Bob in care of the Chargers at P.O. Box 609609, San Diego 92160. Don't be too harsh.

Beathard also traded his 1997 No. 1 to the Bucs for their 1996 second-rounder, used on Virginia Tech receiver Bryan Still, a mediocre pro. Tampa Bay invested that San Diego pick on Reidel Anthony, a Florida receiver whose results have been erratic.

In six of the past seven drafts the Chargers had no No. 1 selections due to Beathard's itchy trigger finger. Their solitary first-rounder, that perplexing QB from Washington State, became the most damning move of Bobby's career.

Actually, two concurrent misfires compounded into devastation for the old Dolphins-Redskins wonder boy. Bobby Ross had been a sweet catch as 1992-96 Chargers coach, but then came Kevin Gilbride, a hotshot Jacksonville Jaguars coordinator who became corpse-cold when put in charge.

After one San Diego season under Gilbride, blue-collar quarterback Stan Humphries retired. He pitched the Chargers to their 1994 glory, reaching that Super Bowl before losing 49-26 to the 49ers.

Beathard bagged up everything but the San Diego Zoo and his 11 grandchildren to get the second pick in the 1998 draft. He was QB ravenous. Peyton Manning and Leaf seemingly were the no-brainer choices.

Surfer Bob owned the third choice. He knew both quarterbacks would be gone. Beathard made a deal with the Arizona Cardinals, relinquishing his No. 1 and also his second-rounder, plus San Diego's No. 1 the following year, as well as wide receiver Eric Metcalf and linebacker Patrick Sapp.

Indianapolis picked ahead of all, choosing Manning, who has become a landslide success. Leaf was left for the Chargers. Figured as a sure thing, Leaf has played poorly and behaved worse. A flop. A jerk.

Beathard has persevered. Realizing his error on coach-naming, Bobby got rid of Gilbride in the middle of the '98 season, replacing him with June Jones. Still, when he hired Mike Riley last year to replace Hawaii-bound Jones, it was a stunner. NFL franchises are not famous for picking coaches from Oregon State. But, leaving it to the Beaver, the Chargers went a surprising 8-8 last season, using mostly retread Jim Harbaugh in the job Leaf was expected to dominate.

I watched Leaf in the Rose Bowl. Talked with him. Was impressed by his toughness and skills. So how can I, in retrospect, say Beathard was foolish for singing Ryan's song? He was far more unlucky than inept. Still, it's his albatross to wear into retirement.

Twenty-five seasons ago, when Beathard was talent-hunting for Dolphins coach Don Shula, he called me aside to ask about a Tampa Bay expansion franchise to begin play a year later. Bobby deserved to become a general manager.

His eager eyes followed my Bucs dissertation, until the mention of John McKay as the near-certain choice to be the original coach. "That's far enough," Beathard said. "I couldn't work with McKay. I'll wait for another chance." His brother, Pete, was a University of Southern California quarterback for McKay.

Bobby knew that John, a legendary college coach, would demand complete control from owner Hugh Culverhouse. Ron Wolf wound up being personnel chief. There were conflicts with McKay and Culverhouse. He was fired after two years, destined for GM success in Green Bay.

Beathard's opportunity was as general manager of the Redskins. He hired Joe Gibbs to coach. They went to three Super Bowls -- one after Beathard left for San Diego -- winning two. Eventually, though, the two had differences. Joe battled Bobby for ultimate say-so. Beathard left in 1990, going home to California to run the Chargers.

For a while, it looked like Surfer Bob paradise.

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