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.
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."