The Critical 'I'

Read. React. Repeat.

Tuesday, June 10, 2003

STEVE BEUERLEIN AND THE NFL'S BIRTH OF THE MODERN
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To some, the news that Steve Beuerlein will be calling it quits after this coming NFL season, his 17th, means nothing more than the retirement of a journeyman quarterback. To me, it reminds me of the passing of an era--and the dawn of a new one.

I'll probably always associate Beuerlein with the coming of true free agency in the NFL, back in 1994. Prior to that, the NFL, like every other league until the mid-1990s, had a system in place that kept players chained to the teams that first drafted/signed them, on the teams' terms. Steps toward a free marketplace where players could shop themselves around were taken only haltingly by the owners, and always by order of the courts. Remember Plan B free agency? Plan B was free agents without free agency, pretty close to what the Group II system in the NHL today is--a guy can accept offers from other teams, but since a team has to cough up draft picks and/or other assets to the former team to close the deal, it means offers never materialize, and that's by design. Once Plan B was killed off, the NFL finally gave in and put in place the (relatively) freewheeling labor system we know today.

The implementation of the modern NFL free agency rules suddenly opened up new possibilities a number of players. For all the attention paid to the anticipated windfall by established stars, the real potential was in those players who were stashed for years on rosters as backups. Far from being inferior players, a lot of these guys had the talent and skills to be first-stringers on other teams, but had no opportunity to demonstrate that. Beuerlein was one of those guys. He was drafted by the Raiders in 1988, didn't work out there as a starter, then was traded to the Cowboys, and wound up as Troy Aikman's backup during Dallas' Super Bowl runs.

It was this background that made Beuerlein look like an ideal candidate for a team in need of a quality starting QB. Few fans remember that Beuerlein was once, for a brief but definite time during the 1994 offseason, a hot commodity in the NFL. Situations like Reggie White joining the Packers as a restricted free agent, and having such a huge impact in turning that franchise around, gave fans and pundits the idea that free agent additions could supercharge a team to success. Beuerlein hoped to make good on those expectations, and he and his agent set off on a league-spanning tour that offseason to sell himself and, more importantly, find the best fit for him.

What happened? It turns out that he slightly overestimated the market for a starter. After playing hard to get with a few choice teams and then getting bypassed, he settled for joining the Cardinals. Beuerlein wasn't enough to make up for the other deficiencies in Phoenix, and after two nondescript seasons, he was exposed in the 1995 expansion draft and taken by the Jacksonville Jaguars. In the cruelest cut of all, he was released after the Jags' inaugural season, and caught on with Carolina as a backup. That's where he stayed, and enjoyed a brief rejuvination, until hooking up with Denver a couple of years ago.

So, Beuerlein's career is one of heightened expectations that, in many ways, were never realized. But at least he got the chance, unlike players from generations before him. He was among the first to really test the market in his profession, and he can close his career satisfied with that, at least.