Talent can make you believe things you otherwise would never believe, and nobody knows that like Bobby Beathard, a great executive who once allowed a quarterback's physical skill to sucker him into making a staggering mistake at the NFL draft.
Beathard was general manager of the San Diego Chargers in 1998 when, after failing to persuade Indianapolis Colts GM Bill Polian to deal him the first overall pick and the right to land Peyton Manning, he gave Arizona a truckload of assets to trade up to take Ryan Leaf with the second pick. Plenty of football men thought Leaf would be a better pro than Manning. All these years later, you could define the then 21-year-old Leaf as a taller, more athletic prospect than the 21-year-old quarterback the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected No. 1 Thursday night, Jameis Winston.
Despite assurances from Leaf's coach at Washington State, Mike Price, that his guy's personal character was the equal of Manning's, Beathard had intel from a staff member at the school suggesting that Leaf was arrogant and too fond of having a good time.
"We had concerns about Ryan and we thought we could work through it, and it backfired," the retired 78-year-old executive said from his Tennessee home. "We just made a big mistake. ... Sometimes you see a guy with so much ability that you think, 'We can't pass this guy up. We can change his character.' But boy, changing someone's character is a really hard thing to do."
That's why Winston represents the biggest gamble in modern draft history. If Leaf stands among the draft's most conspicuous busts (he threw 14 touchdown passes and 36 interceptions in a 25-game career and later did prison time on burglary and drug charges), the pre-draft character concerns about him wouldn't fill up a page in a Winston personnel file as thick as the Tampa phone book.
The Buccaneers took their Bob Beamon leap of faith, anyway, after conducting what they described as a thorough vetting of Winston the human being. You know the list of transgressions by now, best separated into two categories: (1) the immature and mindless acts involving BB and pellet guns, stolen crab legs and Burger King sodas, and the shouting of a profane, sexually explicit Internet meme from the top of a campus table; and (2) the ultra-serious allegation that he raped a fellow Florida State student. Winston wasn't criminally charged in the case and wasn't found to have violated the school's honor code in a hearing; he now faces a civil lawsuit filed by his accuser.
What does it all mean when evaluating the future face of your franchise? As much as NFL teams have talked up the need to draft and develop good citizens in the wake of the Aaron Hernandez, Ray Rice, Greg Hardy and Adrian Peterson cases, the Bucs clearly made a choice based on talent when they picked Winston over another Heisman Trophy winner, Marcus Mariota, a more dynamic athlete who owns better passing stats and a blowout victory over Winston's team in the national semis.
By all accounts, Mariota was the Eagle Scout of his class, and perhaps some saw his kindness as a weakness. Tampa Bay could've gone with the safe call here, and did not. The Bucs decided Winston was the better quarterback and a kid more likely than not to mature, and neither judgment is a slam-dunk proposition.
Beathard had a hand in shaping seven Super Bowl teams in his front-office career -- without the Leaf pick, he might already be in the Hall of Fame -- and Winston's turbulent off-the-field history scares him.
"As an outsider, I'd be very concerned about his past," he said. "Those are bright red flags. ... But I do think he's a heck of a talent who's going to make things tough on NFL defenses."
If the Bucs are right here, they will reverse their history of unfortunate quarterback choices and, at some point in the not-too-distant future, return to the playoffs for the first time since 2007. But if they are wrong, and if Winston turns out to be the same reckless figure he was in college, the same quarterback who embarrassed even one of his chief enablers -- FSU coach Jimbo Fisher -- by suiting up for a game he was suspended for, the consequences will be dramatic.
Winston can get GM Jason Licht and the coach, Lovie Smith, fired, and cause a lot more long-term damage than that. Ernie Accorsi, who drafted John Elway for the Baltimore Colts (before owner Robert Irsay dealt him to Denver against Accorsi's wishes), drafted Bernie Kosar in Cleveland, and completed the draft-day deal for Eli Manning in New York, said he didn't have enough information on Winston to comment on his chances of growing into a reliable franchise player.
"But in general," Accorsi said, "if you're picking a quarterback in the top five and he turns out to be a bust, boy, that's a five- to eight-year setback for your franchise. If that quarterback struggles early, the people who brought him in are going to rationalize it and say he needs time, and you might pass up better quarterbacks in ensuing years. The quarterback has to have the whole package if you're picking that high, because history tells us you can't blow that pick."
Off a 2-14 season, Tampa Bay needs a ton more out of Winston than Oakland got out of JaMarcus Russell and San Diego got out of Leaf. Polian, now an ESPN analyst, said that it was clear before the '98 draft that Manning was superior to Leaf in talent, preparation and maturity "by an extreme margin." Polian's Colts decided Manning was a no-risk prospect despite an incident during his junior year at the University of Tennessee in which a female athletic trainer who was treating him said he dropped his shorts and lowered himself on her head. Manning said he didn't make contact with her and was "mooning" another male athlete in a prank not meant for her to witness.
The trainer, Jamie Whited, included the Manning incident in a sexual harassment claim against the university and reportedly won a $300,000 settlement; the quarterback apologized in a registered letter and was forced by his coach to do extra running as punishment. That would've been a much noisier story in the age of Twitter and TMZ than it was back then.
Polian said the people he interviewed in and around Manning's life couldn't say enough positive things about him. "Everybody does stupid things at that age, and that's not an indication of character," Polian said. "It's how you live your life that's an indication of character, and Peyton's was fine."
An exemplary leader for 16 years, Manning has validated Polian's faith and proved to be one of the best draft picks of all time. But when is a bad decision in college a teachable moment, the kind of bad decisions many of us make at that age, and when is it indicative of a more ominous storm to come?
"That's the question," said agent Leigh Steinberg, who represented Leaf; Hall of Fame quarterbacks Troy Aikman, Steve Young and Warren Moon; and eight NFL players who went No. 1 overall in the draft. "Adolescence and even in our early 20s are times we all make decisions that we will someday regret. ... Are we seeing recidivist tendencies, or a one-time learning experience? We don't throw young men on the trash heap of history from one aberrational mistake they've learned from.
"What's devilishly tricky with Winston is this: Did he learn from these experiences in a way that served as a cautionary tale for him in terms of how close he came to ruining a pro career he desperately wants? Or did he continue to retain the concepts that he is bigger than the system and the rules, and not subject to paying attention to them?"
On the Leaf front, Steinberg said his client fooled him just like he fooled Beathard. If Winston has fooled Tampa Bay in a way that Johnny Manziel fooled Cleveland -- at least in Year 1 -- watch out. The NFL is so quarterback-centric, and the salary cap can be so punitive to a team with a bonus baby who flames out, Winston has to be exactly what the Bucs are praying he'll be.
And what are the chances, based on his behavior at FSU? How could someone who showed such on-field poise and command in winning 26 of 27 games be clueless enough to jump on a table and scream a vulgar sexual expression while facing an allegation of sexual assault?
Megastar NFL quarterbacks have made significant errors in judgment in the past, and Brett Favre and Ben Roethlisberger could tell Winston a thing or two about that. But the league culture has changed, and the ill-behaved are on notice like never before. That's one reason Polian said he would've taken Mariota over Winston in a close call, though the Hall of Fame executive cautioned he didn't have nearly the data he would've had as a working GM. That's one reason Steinberg -- without specifically referring to Winston and Mariota -- said he'd prefer the quarterback client "most behaviorally suited to being a role model."
Nobody wants to repeat the unforced error committed by Beathard in 1998, two years before he retired. "I felt terrible for what I was responsible for with the owners and his teammates," Beathard said of the Leaf pick. "I think I was an example of someone who let the character issues slip and it hurt the whole group. I learned a lesson, but it was a tough lesson to learn."
The Bucs' GM, Licht, and head coach, Smith, are convinced they won't someday confess to any such regrets. But based on documented college behavior, on the NFL's new conduct policies, and on the burdens of drafting first instead of second, theirs is a bigger gamble than Beathard's.
Today's final word on that gamble belongs to Winston's former coach at Hueytown High School in Alabama, Matt Scott, who said he met with a few NFL teams for up to four hours yet spoke with a Buccaneers official just once, on the phone, for an hour early in the pre-draft process. Scott said Thursday that he'd formed an alliance with Winston's father and the Hueytown baseball coach to constantly monitor the young quarterback and pitcher, that he had to discipline Winston only once (for being late to a team lunch), that the kid had never taunted an opponent or shown up a ref, and that he was much more likely on an offseason Friday night to be studying film than joining his classmates at a party.
Scott said Winston preferred to give his backup a chance to play rather than chase 300-yard passing games, and that before the team's annual banquet he once asked the coach to give his offensive MVP award to a senior running back.
"What 15-year-old kid does that?" Scott said. "Jameis knew that kid might never put on a pair of pads again, and he knew there were bigger awards to come for himself. People talk about how immature Jameis acted at Florida State, but at the same time I saw him at 15 show the maturity of a 30-year-old.
"People assume that we enabled him and let him do whatever he wanted, but it was the opposite of that. I'm not criticizing Florida State, but Jameis went from a very restrictive situation here where he wasn't treated like a rock star to a place where he could do no wrong and everyone loves you. In college, all the restrictive things in place in high school were gone.
"If people want to look at the reports of the sexual assault and say that's immoral behavior even if it's not criminal, and say they're just not a fan of the guy, that's totally fair. But if you put Jameis in a very structured NFL situation where it's all business, then he's going into a world he's absolutely made for. So I don't think this is a gamble. I think this is a no-brainer."