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Manning's still crossing paths with Chargers long after Leaf's spectacular meltdown

Peyton Manning or Ryan Leaf?

It was the big question going into the 1998 draft and one that was quickly answered that fall.

Indianapolis made the right choice and Bobby Beathard and the San Diego Chargers were stuck with a colossal mistake.

Nearly 15 years later, Manning is still crossing paths with the Chargers. On Monday night, he'll bring his Denver Broncos (2-3) to Qualcomm Stadium to face the AFC West rival Chargers (3-2).

It'll be the first time the Chargers have faced Manning since he joined the Broncos in the offseason.

It turns out the Chargers have owned Manning, in a sense. The Chargers are 5-1 against Manning since 2005, when they ruined Indianapolis' shot at a perfect season. They also eliminated Manning and the Colts from the playoffs in consecutive seasons.

But they never owned him in the way that really would have mattered.

In the spring of 1998, the Chargers were looking to replace Stan Humphries, the only quarterback who ever got them to the Super Bowl. Humphries had been sidelined midway through the 1997 season with a concussion and then decided to retire.

Indianapolis had the No. 1 pick. San Diego had the third. Beathard sent a king's ransom of draft picks and players to Arizona to move up one spot. He said he tried to move into the top spot but Bill Polian, then the Colts' GM, didn't want to make the deal.

Beathard knew which of the two he would have taken, if given the chance to pick first.

"Absolutely Peyton Manning. Absolutely," Beathard said a few days ago while visiting San Diego.

"I even called Archie," Beathard said, referring to Manning's father. "In fact, I called Bill Polian to try to make that trade and Bill said they weren't sure which one they were going to take, so he didn't want to do that."

Beathard — the only GM to build a Super Bowl team in San Diego — can't remember what he offered Polian for the top pick, only that he wanted it.

He didn't get it. Indy got a quarterback that would eventually win one Super Bowl, get his team to another and has been chosen NFL MVP four times. San Diego got a quarterback who hurled obscenities and interceptions at an alarming rate before his career flamed out.

Beathard remembers coming back from a fact-finding trip to Pullman, Wash., aware of Leaf's talent — he had led Washington State to the Rose Bowl the previous season — but unaware of his combustible personality.

"The thing is about Peyton, we knew them. I knew Archie. It would have been a slam dunk," said Beathard, who retired in 2000 and now lives in Tennessee. "Polian told me later, 'I'm not sure which one is better.' There's no question Ryan was good in college. But all the off-field stuff, they were things that I know their coach didn't divulge and he stuck up for him when I went up there.

"It was a mistake we made that was hard to recover from. We would have taken Peyton, no question about it. It wasn't even a hard decision."

Beathard has another regret. When Indy wouldn't give up the No. 1 pick, Beathard thought about trading down and grabbing another quarterback.

"I can't remember who, and I wish I had done it," Beathard said.

Beathard always loathed first-round draft picks, treating them as if they were nuclear waste. He often dealt them to stock up on lower-round picks and then take flyers on players from lesser-known schools. Some panned out. Many didn't.

In this case, though, the Chargers were stuck.

"The thing didn't come out well," Beathard said. "We were scared to death we'd be stuck without a quarterback. We knew we had to get one of the two guys. We unanimously agreed on Peyton, but we couldn't make that trade up, so we thought we'd at least be fortunate to get one of them. But then all hell broke loose."

The Chargers opened 2-0 in 1998 before Leaf's meltdown began, on and off the field. He had an abysmal performance in a loss at Kansas City. The next day, he berated a reporter in the locker room, unaware that a television cameraman was taping the entire exchange.

After the team's bye week, reports surfaced that Leaf acted obnoxiously while bar-hopping during a visit to Pullman to contribute $200,000 to his alma mater. His poor performance on the field led the Chargers to bench him, and he finished that season with 15 interceptions, two touchdowns and a 39.0 passer rating.

During his long career, Beathard had a hand in building seven Super Bowl teams in jobs ranging from scout to GM. One of his greatest successes was hiring Joe Gibbs as coach of the Washington Redskins in 1981. Together, they won two of the three Super Bowls they reached in the 1980s.

He wasn't as lucky in 1998.

"It was really bad," Beathard said. "There were people in the league that thought we made the right choice, that we got the better of the two. In hindsight, it really made us or me look silly that we didn't know all that. But we didn't. I went up there, asked everybody if there were any problems and was told, 'He's a great kid' and all that stuff. There were a lot of them up there that stuck up for him."

Leaf missed the 1999 season after injuring his right shoulder during training camp and still managed to get into trouble. While rehabbing his shoulder that November, he was suspended for four weeks for cussing at Beathard and others in the organization.

Leaf got the heave-ho in February 2001 by then-GM John Butler. Recently, he's faced drug and burglary charges in Texas and Montana.

For Beathard, it's hard to forget.

For Manning, he doesn't want to remember recent losses to San Diego, although he did beat them his first three tries, including a showdown against Leaf as rookies in 1998.

"For me, I'm playing for the Broncos right now. This is my first time playing the Chargers under these circumstances," he said. "There is some newness to this game and some unknown in terms of what they'll do. We have new things we're working on and developing at the same time. I think it's hard to draw comparisons to years past."

The Chargers also will always be linked with Manning's younger brother, Eli. The Chargers took Eli Manning with the first pick overall in 2004 despite Archie Manning's request that they not do so, then swapped the player's rights to the New York Giants for Philip Rivers and additional picks.

Eli Manning has gone on to lead the Giants to two Super Bowl victories.

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