The clock was ticking. It was 1:50 p.m. last Thursday, and
Chargers general manager Bobby Beathard stood by a pay phone at
the tiny airport in Steamboat Springs, Colo., ready to pull the
trigger on the most eye-popping NFL trade of the 1990s. Beathard
was on the verge of giving the Cardinals San Diego's first-round
draft picks in 1998 and '99, a second-round choice this year,
one of the game's most dangerous return men (Eric Metcalf) and a
reserve linebacker (Patrick Sapp) to move up one place, from No.
3 to Arizona's No. 2 spot, in the NFL draft on April 18. In so
doing, Beathard would guarantee that the Chargers could select
one of two marquee quarterbacks, Ryan Leaf or Peyton Manning.
If the Cardinals backed out, Beathard had a two o'clock deadline
from the Jets to make a trade for defensive end Hugh Douglas.
The Chargers would give up their second- and sixth-round picks
this year for Douglas. Then San Diego would almost certainly use
the third pick in the draft on Andre Wadsworth, Florida State's
terrific pass-rushing defensive end.
Already a fan of the Chargers, Leaf likes the thought of playing
in San Diego.
(John W. McDonough)
Beathard, who had just arrived in Steamboat Springs for a family
vacation, called Arizona. He told Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill
and vice president of player personnel Bob Ferguson that he was
ready to do the deal, which the two teams had been negotiating
for five weeks. But the Arizona executives asked for more time
to give the trade some final thought. "I can't," Beathard said.
"I have a deadline with another team on another deal."
"When's the deadline?" Ferguson asked.
Beathard looked at his watch. "Three minutes," he said.
"Wait a minute," Ferguson said, putting Beathard on hold.
Moments later Bidwill got back on the line and said, "We have a
Nothing says more about what pro football has become than this
trade. First, there's the desperate-for-a-quarterback factor.
When Packers general manager Ron Wolf heard about the swap, he
said, "I've got to call Bobby and congratulate him. You pay
whatever you have to for a franchise player." The Chargers had
to pay a king's ransom to Arizona, which was fielding several
tempting offers for the rights to whichever of the two
quarterbacks the Colts, picking first in the draft, don't take.
(The Bengals dangled two first-round picks plus running back
Ki-Jana Carter; the Saints offered a first-rounder plus five
more picks in 1998; the Bears were willing to part with their
first-rounder plus 1,000-yard rusher Raymont Harris and
defensive end Alonzo Spellman.)
Then there's the sacrifice-tomorrow-for-today factor. San Diego
doesn't have a pick in rounds 2 through 4 this year and in round
1 in '99, but at least it will have a quarterback who it can
Finally, there's the mania factor: having to respond to
impatient fans and having to be competitive in a league that
recently negotiated $17.6 billion in TV contracts. "There's more
pressure today," Beathard says. "There's more of the
On the day after the trade Beathard had no buyer's remorse.
Since Super Bowl XXIX three years ago, when the upstart Chargers
got shellacked by the 49ers, his team is 21-28, and quarterback
Stan Humphries has retired. "Had we gotten Douglas and
Wadsworth," Beathard says, "that means we don't get the
quarterback. So maybe if we're 4-12 next year, we have another
chance to pick a great quarterback - if there is one. But if
we're 4-12 next year, maybe I'm not around to do the picking.
Did we overpay? Shoot, we all overpay in this game now. For
If the Colts take the University of Tennessee's Manning, then
Leaf, the Washington State quarterback and a big Chargers' fan,
would be thrilled. The added pressure of a team's trading a
large chunk of its future for him doesn't seem to faze Leaf. "If
there's more pressure, I welcome it," he says. "My mom and my
coach have always said I'm at my best when I'm backed into a
If the quarterback San Diego selects doesn't pan out, this could
be the last megadeal by a guy once regarded as the smartest
personnel man in football. It was suggested to Beathard last
Friday that he had paid too dearly in this deal. As sure as he
has ever been about anything, he replied, "You'll be wrong."
Issue date: March 23, 1998