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 mat 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."