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Late Starter A backup for most of his 13-year career, Steve Beuerlein finally has a tight grip on the first-string quarterback job in Carolina

April 10, 2000
April 10, 2000

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April 10, 2000

Late Starter A backup for most of his 13-year career, Steve Beuerlein finally has a tight grip on the first-string quarterback job in Carolina

On Dec. 12, with five seconds to play in a game against the
Green Bay Packers, Steve Beuerlein's starting job with the
Carolina Panthers--and his NFL future--were on the line. With
his team facing fourth-and-goal at the Green Bay five and
trailing 31-27, Beuerlein, a 34-year-old journeyman quarterback
who had been a backup for most of his 13 years in the NFL,
trotted to the Lambeau Field sideline to get the most important
play of his pro career.

This is an article from the April 10, 2000 issue Original Layout

If the Panthers scored a touchdown, they would still be in the
thick of the wild-card race and Beuerlein would keep his starting
job. If Carolina came up short, the club would be all but dead in
the postseason water and Jeff Lewis, a young backup with a lot of
promise, would go under center for the remainder of the year,
maybe longer.

"So, you wanna watch it on tape?" Beuerlein asks a recent
visitor in the den of his suburban Dallas home. Before an answer
comes, Steve's wife, Kristen, jumps up to draw the curtains, and
Beuerlein adjusts the volume on the home-theater system. The
couple's three-year-old son, Taylor, shouts, "Are we gonna
watch, Daddy?" They have viewed the tape many times before.

The video shows Beuerlein dropping three steps to sell the pass
before taking off on, of all things, a quarterback draw.
Beuerlein bolts to his left, but two yards short of the goal
line he is hit low by Packers safety Rodney Artmore. Kristen
sucks in a breath through clenched teeth as she watches her
husband lunge forward. His torso crosses the goal line, and as
he falls to the turf, his arms shoot triumphantly into the air.
Time has expired. The Panthers have won.

"Look at me right there," says Beuerlein, freezing the tape
after a camera zooms in on his face. "It sure looks like I'm
celebrating, but I'm not. I'm in excruciating pain [from the
hit]." In a second, teammates are piling on him, and he is
letting loose a joyous, cleansing scream--a scream that was 13
years in the making.

"No one in the league would have expected that call," says
Atlanta Falcons defensive coordinator Rich Brooks, whose team
split a pair of games with Beuerlein in 1999. "But that's Steve
Beuerlein. How can you not respect a guy who gets the crap kicked
out of him over and over and then comes back to make that one
crucial play?"

"I have had some incredible highs in my coaching career," says
Panthers coach George Seifert, who guided the San Francisco 49ers
to wins in Super Bowls XXIV and XXIX, "but I haven't experienced
anything as exciting as that moment. We both knew if Steve didn't
get in, I probably would have had to sit him the next week."

The Panthers won two of their remaining three games to finish
8-8, yet missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker. Still, Beuerlein
put the finishing touches on a career year: He threw for a
league-high 4,436 yards plus 36 touchdowns, becoming one of 11
passers in NFL history to top 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns in
the same season. His 94.6 quarterback rating ranked second in the
league, and he was selected to the Pro Bowl for the first time.

When Beuerlein reached the sideline at Lambeau that day, Seifert
threw out, "What do you think about the quarterback draw?" The
suggestion sounded so preposterous that backup quarterback Steve
Bono chuckled. Going into the game, Beuerlein had two career
rushing touchdowns and a 1.2-yard average to show for 163 career
carries. "Everybody on this team can outrun him except [recently
retired 350-pound guard] Nate Newton," says center Frank Garcia,
"and that would be a close race."

The way Beuerlein tells it, his slowness afoot is the stuff of
legend. After he scrambled for a 15-yard gain during his senior
year at Servite High in Anaheim, the public address announcer,
thinking his mike was turned off, uttered, "Boy, he is slow,
isn't he?" After Beuerlein ran the ball during a scrimmage at
Notre Dame, coach Lou Holtz imposed the "Beuerlein option rule"
on his quarterback. "Steve Beuerlein, I'm going to tell you the
rule when you run the option at Notre Dame," Holtz said. "If you
come down that line and the defensive end even looks at you, you
pitch that ball to the tailback. And if you come down the line
and you don't see anything in front of you except green grass,
well then, son, you pitch that ball."

A four-year starter for the Fighting Irish nevertheless,
Beuerlein made up for his lack of speed by learning to read
defenses and developing a quick release. He also stubbornly
planted himself in the pocket no matter how fierce the rush. He
was selected in the fourth round of the 1987 draft by the Los
Angeles Raiders and, after spending his rookie season on injured
reserve with elbow and shoulder ailments, started 15 times over
the next two seasons while splitting time with Jay Schroeder.
Unsigned going into his fourth season, he got in a contract
squabble with the Raiders and didn't re-up with the club until
the week before the 1990 opener. He received a two-week roster
exemption and then, as the third quarterback, was declared
inactive before each of the last 14 games. "Steve was put in an
impossible situation in Los Angeles," says Denver Broncos coach
Mike Shanahan, who coached the Raiders in 1988 and for the first
four games of '89. "[Getting away from the Raiders] was good for
him. Steve had this ability to not focus on being hit and
instead concentrate on getting the ball downfield. That's
unique. You get enough people like Steve, and you have a chance
to win a championship. It was only a matter of time until he
would have success."

The Raiders didn't want to give him that time. In August 1991
L.A. traded Beuerlein to the Dallas Cowboys, where he backed up
Troy Aikman for two seasons. Subbing for an injured Aikman late
in '91, he led the Cowboys to five straight wins before Dallas
lost in the second round of the playoffs. At practice one day
Cowboys offensive coordinator Norv Turner (now the Washington
Redskins' coach) walked between Aikman and Beuerlein as the two
warmed up and said, "You guys are both going to play in the Pro
Bowl someday." Aikman made it in 1991, but Beuerlein would have
to wait another eight years for his first trip to Honolulu. (In
fact, Beuerlein tied former St. Louis Cardinals offensive
lineman Bob Young, who went to the Pro Bowl in January 1979, for
the longest stretch of service in the NFL before playing in the
all-star game.)

After the '92 season Beuerlein became an unrestricted free agent
and joined the Phoenix Cardinals. He started 14 games in his
first year with the team, completing 62% of his passes for 3,164
yards, but coach Joe Bugel was fired after a 7-9 season and
replaced by Buddy Ryan. The new boss wasn't sold on Beuerlein. He
played both Beuerlein and Schroeder, then made Beuerlein a
scapegoat for the team's 8-8 finish in 1994. "That was the worst
situation I have ever been around," says St. Louis Rams wideout
Ricky Proehl, who played in Arizona from 1990 through '94. "Of
course Buddy didn't take any responsibility; to him it was all
Steve's fault. Steve is the best leader I have ever played with.
It just killed him to be thought of like that."

Indeed, those close to the quarterback say that Ryan was the only
person who ever really rattled Beuerlein. The quarterback is
candid about almost everything else in his life, but he doesn't
like to talk about Ryan. "He just doesn't deserve to be talked
about," Beuerlein says. (Ryan declined to be interviewed.)

"Steve is accurate and smart, can throw the ball downfield and
hit the quick throws too," says Turner. "That's a rare
combination for a quarterback in today's game. So I expected him
to do well in Arizona. I think if he had found an offense like
the one he is in now, he would have been successful for the last
six or seven years."

After the '94 season Beuerlein was left unprotected in the
expansion draft and was taken by the Jacksonville Jaguars with
their first pick. Two months after that draft, however, the
Jaguars traded for Mark Brunell, and though Beuerlein started
six games in '95, he was looking for work again in the off-season.

When he signed with Carolina, Beuerlein says, he had come to
grips with being a backup; he started only seven games over the
next two seasons. Then, early in '98, Kerry Collins walked into
a Wednesday quarterbacks meeting and said that he had stepped
down as the Panthers' starter because his heart was no longer in
the game. Beuerlein took over and went on a tear in the final 12
games, throwing for 2,613 yards and 17 touchdowns. That same
season, the Panthers had switched to a variation of the West
Coast offense. The Carolina system, though complicated, was a
perfect fit with Beuerlein's cerebral approach and Pentium-fast
reads.

Finally the toughness he showed in L.A., the talent he gave
glimpses of in Dallas and Arizona and the quiet class he
displayed at each stop came together in Carolina. "You approach
the game a bit differently when you know you may never get
another chance like this," says Beuerlein. "At that point in my
career I was thinking, No way am I giving this up, no matter
what happens to me physically. I just wanted to let it all ride
and see what came of it."

Alas, coach Dom Capers was fired after a tumultuous '98 season.
Seifert took over and, like Ryan, wasn't high on Beuerlein. "I
thought of him as nothing more than a backup," recalls Seifert,
who kept the West Coast attack. "I had the idea that somebody
else might be in there before the halfway point last season. But
he just ran with it. Now this team is all his. He is absolutely,
unequivocally the starter. Only now the real test starts for
Steve because I expect him to be even better next year."

"You could tell after a while that Steve was thriving in this
offense," adds Gil Haskell, the Panthers' offensive coordinator
for the past two years before taking the same position with the
Seattle Seahawks. "Each week he'd get better. He'd make a throw
in practice, and you'd say, 'Oh boy, he's got it; that was a
helluva pass.' Nothing about last season was a fluke. Steve can
play like this for a long time."

Provided, of course, that his body holds up. Over the past two
years Beuerlein has been sacked a league-high 94 times. Since
the end of last season he has undergone surgery to fix a hernia,
to remove bone spurs from his right shoulder and bone chips and
spurs from his left ankle and to extract loose cartilage from
his left knee. Two days after leaving the hospital in February
following the last surgery, he was getting ready for a black-tie
charity event in Charlotte. To keep the healing incisions from
getting wet in the shower, he had wrapped parts of his body in
plastic wrap. When he tried to put on his tux, he was too sore
to button his shirt. He gave up and plopped on the bed.
Forty-five minutes passed before Kristen came in to see why he
was taking so long. "It was the saddest sight I have ever seen,"
she says. "He was so frustrated and tired and sore. I wanted to
give him a big hug, but that would have hurt too much."

As they worked together on the tux, the Beuerleins burst into
laughter. It was a joyous, cleansing fit of laughter.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER READ MILLERCOLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER SECOND TO NONE Starting all 16 games for the first time in his career, Beuerlein led the NFL in passing yards in 1999, with 4,436.COLOR PHOTO: MORRY GASH/AP VICTORY! The Panthers like Beuerlein's arm, but the quarterback saved his starting job with this touchdown run against the Packers.
"Nothing about last season was a fluke," says Haskell. "Steve
can play like this for a long time."
Seifert admits that when he took over, he thought of Beuerlein
as "nothing more than a backup."