SAN DIEGO Standing at a podium in a party tent six years ago, San Diego Chargers owner Alex Spanos gushed about the team's new quarterback, obtained with the second pick in the draft.
''He's the future,'' said Spanos, who couldn't make it any clearer he loathed going to New York to exercise such a high pick. ''Quite frankly, this man will solve all those problems for the next 15 years, and I told him that.''
Oops! The Chargers had stumbled into merely the worst judgment call in franchise history. That QB, of course, was Ryan Leaf. As the Chargers repeatedly discovered during his disastrous three years in town, his last name might as well have been Grief.
Leaf is long gone from the NFL, but his blimp-like shadow still hangs over the Chargers, the team parity forgot.
How else to explain why other teams routinely go from worst to first, while the only thing this one does with regularity is lose?
The Chargers are 43-85 since their last playoff appearance in 1995, and for the second time in four seasons, they own the top pick in the draft. By going 4-12 in Marty Schottenheimer's second year as coach, they surpassed even the Cincinnati Bengals in futility.
And perceptions die hard. Just like in 2001, fans are wondering if the Chargers are unnerved about using this pick on a quarterback and paying a huge signing bonus because of the Leaf fiasco.
Team officials practically bristle at the suggestion, insisting they're not.
But the fact remains the Chargers passed on taking Michael Vick with the first pick in the 2001 draft. They traded down to No. 5 and ended up with LaDainian Tomlinson, one of the NFL's premier running backs. But while Vick led Atlanta into the postseason two years later, the closest Tomlinson has gotten to the playoffs is watching them on TV, like all Chargers have for the last eight seasons.
San Diego, by the way, is 17-31 since getting Tomlinson.
Fast forward to 2004, and the Chargers still need a quarterback.
''We're looking, and our quarterbacks know that,'' general manager A.J. Smith said before free agency opened.
The Chargers didn't sign one then. Now, for the third time in seven years, they have a chance to take a franchise QB in Saturday's draft.
Mississippi quarterback Eli Manning, son of Archie and brother of Peyton the No. 1 pick in 1998, ahead of Leaf is the top-rated player.
The Chargers recently went on a QB tour, working out Manning, Ben Roethlisberger of Miami of Ohio, and Philip Rivers of North Carolina State.
There's an uneasy feeling among fans that no matter what the Chargers do with the No. 1 pick use it or trade down in order to acquire additional picks they'll somehow mess it up. Again, worries based on the Leaf fiasco.
''I couldn't care less about Ryan Leaf,'' said Smith, who was promoted after John Butler died of cancer in April 2003.
''I think people are assuming that Dean Spanos as the president has informed the GM, me, that you can't take a quarterback because we've been burned in the past,'' Smith said. ''I would never accept a job as GM if certain things were dictated like that.
''If there is a player there in the first round, quarterback or otherwise, and I feel we should take him, I'll recommend that we do so.''
So, after playing like Jughead for eight years, will they take Archie's kid?
Or will they trade down to help fill their many other desperate needs? They don't have a left tackle to protect whomever their quarterback will be, or an impact wide receiver, a stud defensive end, or an established kicker or punter.
The New York Giants, holding the fourth pick, covet Manning and have inquired about the No. 1 pick. Maybe the Chargers think they can trade down and still get Rivers. They also like Iowa tackle Robert Gallery, but if they trade down, it's highly unlikely he'd still be available.
San Diego's quarterbacks are Doug Flutie, Drew Brees and Cleo Lemon.
Flutie, 41, has become a 5-foot-10 circus act, pulling out an occasional thrilling win, but otherwise going 7-14 in three seasons. Brees, the so-called quarterback of the future, was benched for five games last year and is 4-16 in his last 20 starts. Lemon has yet to take an NFL snap.
Six years ago, Peyton Manning went to the Indianapolis Colts with the draft's first pick. That left then-Chargers GM Bobby Beathard a riverboat gambler on draft days to take Leaf after heavily mortgaging the franchise's future to move up just one spot.
Leaf got an $11.25 million signing bonus, then became one of the NFL's biggest flops.
''I don't really care what's happened in the past,'' said Dean Spanos, son of the owner. ''I'm only concerned with what happens now and in the future. Obviously, we have to learn from our mistakes. Nothing that happened in the past will change my decision of what should be done in the best interests of the club. If it is take a quarterback with the first pick, we will do that, regardless of the past.''
Spanos said the biggest lesson from the Leaf disaster was to study all aspects of a player, not just his on-field ability.
''Character is a huge issue,'' Spanos said.
The Leaf blunder was just one of a staggering number of bad personnel decisions by the Chargers over the years.
Smith was Butler's right-hand man for 21 years with three franchises. Interestingly, he's dumped some of Butler's big free-agent signings, like defensive end Marcellus Wiley, receiver David Boston and tight end Stephen Alexander, who were underwhelming after getting big cash.
Linebacker Junior Seau, safety Rodney Harrison, kicker John Carney and defensive tackle John Parrella were among team leaders unceremoniously shown the door. Harrison merely went on to help lead the New England Patriots to a Super Bowl win.
Of the 24 players taken in three drafts by the Butler-Smith regime, seven are gone. No definitive judgments have been made on three second-round picks: Brees, guard Toniu Fonoti and receiver Reche Caldwell.
Worse, of the 20 players drafted from 1998-00, only two remain. To move up one spot in the 1998 draft to get Leaf, Beathard sent his '98 and '99 first-round picks, his '99 second-rounder and two players to Arizona. In the same draft, he sent his 2000 first-rounder to Tampa Bay in order to take Mikhael Ricks, another bust, in the second round.
''I'm not going to cast judgment on Bobby Beathard except to say that there should be more players here than there are to form a base,'' Smith said.
''There's no question you have to have players with you over a period of time. There cannot be turnover like that. The lifeblood of your team comes from the draft. No one is perfect. But you just can't keep spinning your wheels and not have draft picks here and start over again.''
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