Can Douglas survive as Beathard did?
The NFL lost a Hall of Famer on Wednesday, as long-time executive Bobby Beathard passed away at the age of 86 from Alzheimer’s complications. Beathard was the architect of the Washington ‘Hogs’ teams under Joe Gibbs that won three titles in the 1980s and ’90s. In his 33 years as a scout, director of player personnel, and general manager, Beathard went to seven Super Bowls, winning four of them. His crowning achievement came early on with the perfect 1972 Dolphins.
— Around The NFL (@AroundTheNFL) February 1, 2023
One thing Beathard is also very well known for—perhaps even more than his successes—is drafting perhaps the biggest bust in NFL history, Ryan Leaf, with the No. 2 overall pick. The selection was so unforgivable mainly because of who came right before it, all-time legend QB Peyton Manning.
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So how did the architect of that colossal failure become enshrined in Canton?
Well, Beathard obviously had a long history of success prior to this defeat. He built up Washington by trading away first-round picks. He was unconventional, and it worked. When his failure came, it may have stained his legacy, but it did not destroy it. When Beathard was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2018, Leaf called him to express gratitude that this one failure did not tarnish his legacy badly enough to keep Beathard out of Canton.
A more recent general manager appears to have picked an all-time bust with the No. 2 overall pick, coming one spot after a player who was dubbed a generational talent and flashed it in spades in his second season. What can Joe Douglas learn from Bobby Beathard?
The draft is king
Bobby Beathard may not have believed in keeping first-round picks, but that does not mean he devalued the draft. He picked Dexter Manley, a Hall of Fame edge rusher, in the fifth round. Rich Milot, a nine-year Washington linebacker, was taken in the seventh round. Monte Coleman, who played for Washington for 16 years, was picked in the 11th round. Joe Jacoby, a cog of the Hogs offensive line, was an undrafted free agent. He also hit it big in the first round with Art Monk and Darrell Green and in the third with Russ Grimm.
The 1994 Chargers made the Super Bowl in their fifth year under Beathard’s watch. Rookie Rodney Harrison was a fifth-round pick. Pro Bowler Natrone Means was a second-rounder the year before. The crown jewel of that AFC-winning team, though, was Beathard’s first pick with the team, Hall of Famer Junior Seau. Ultimately, the Leaf pick was a bust, but Beathard had already had success even with the Chargers.
Joe Douglas, on the other hand, has had mixed results in the draft. His 2020 draft is ugly to look at; if Mekhi Becton can somehow regain his rookie form, perhaps something of it can be salvaged. As it currently stands, the only saving grace from the 2020 draft period is undrafted free agent Bryce Huff, whom the Jets underutilized in 2022. Perhaps Douglas will re-sign Huff and unleash a Dexter Manley-esque player on the NFL.
The 2021 draft also hasn’t aged as well as it started. Zach Wilson looks like a Leaf-level bust, but Elijah Moore took a big step back, too, as did Michael Carter. Michael Carter II had a nice year overall and Brandin Echols contributed occasionally. Alijah Vera-Tucker is the crown jewel of that draft, and he was headed toward an All-Pro selection prior to his season-ending triceps injury.
Douglas rebounded in a big way with a fantastic 2022 draft. Every single player he selected showed promise in 2022, including Jeremy Ruckert, who made a big impression in the final game of the season against Miami.
Sauce Gardner became a first-team All-Pro; Garrett Wilson may win the Offensive Rookie of the Year and looks like a top-10 receiver in the league already; Jermaine Johnson and Micheal Clemons showed fantastic edge-setting and intriguing pass-rush potential; Breece Hall was the most dominant back in the league; and even Max Mitchell played better than the Jets could have expected from a fourth-round developmental pick.
This year’s draft is critical for Douglas, as it is the first time that he does not have a lot of cap space to work with in free agency. Obtaining young talent that can contribute immediately will be key. However, it would be a huge bonus if players like Moore, Becton, Carter, Ruckert, Mitchell, Johnson, and Clemons could take big steps forward and build on their rookie seasons. Some production from Jamien Sherwood would help, as well.
Success doesn’t come overnight
When Beathard took over as Washington’s GM in 1979, his team went 10-6 that first year. However, they regressed the next two seasons, going 6-10 and 8-8, respectively. In his fourth year, they finally put it all together and won a championship in the strike-shortened 1982 season. For the next six years of his tenure, Washington was a dominant franchise, highlighted by their second Super Bowl victory in a strike season (1987).
It also took Beathard a few years in San Diego, too. He endured 6-10 and 4-12 seasons before breaking through at 11-5 in 1992. The Chargers had been 6-10 in the two years prior to Beathard’s takeover, and the change didn’t happen overnight.
Joe Douglas took over a much worse situation than Beathard ever did. He inherited a roster bereft of talent and did not even get a chance to shop for his groceries (as Bill Parcells so eloquently put it) in his first year with the team. While he is heading into his fourth offseason, he has replenished the talent on the roster and built the seeds of a really strong team. Yes, he whiffed on Zach Wilson and some of his free agents have not worked out as planned, but ultimately, this team was a quarterback away from a postseason berth this season. That’s pretty impressive a mere two years after going 2-14.
Douglas has been patient and prudent until now. It is important for him to stay the course.
Even the best GM misses
Beathard is a Hall of Famer, and he picked Ryan Leaf. The fact that Joe Douglas picked Zach Wilson does not make him a bad GM. His process in picking Wilson was not bad; an ESPN poll of 23 front offices showed that every single one of those teams would have taken Wilson at No. 2 overall, as well.
How he bounces back from the Wilson debacle will be important, though. Beathard was at the end of his career and chose to retire after the Leaf failure. Douglas’s career is still in its early days. He has time to make this work—if he can break through this season.
Don’t be afraid to buck the trend
Imagine where the 2022 Jets would have been without Breece Hall and Alijah Vera-Tucker, the two players whose draft slots were repeatedly mocked by analytics gurus. There’s theory, and then there’s practice.
Beathard traded his first-rounders to obtain talent. Douglas picked positions that might not be as valued, but he obtained two stalwarts for his team. The naysayers will always naysay. Look what happened when Douglas followed the trends with Wilson.
While bucking a trend for the sake of being different is foolish, doing so when it aligns with team need and structure is a calculated risk.
May Bobby Beathard rest in peace, and may his penchant for success shine upon Joe Douglas.
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