The Carolina Panthers are celebrating their 20th NFL season this year. Each week during the 2014 season, Panthers.com will take a look back at a special play, player, game or moment from each of the team's 20 seasons.
The play call was so unexpected that it was met with laughter on the Panthers sideline and again in the huddle when quarterback Steve Beuerlein relayed it to his offensive teammates.
The setting could not have been more dramatic: Lambeau Field versus the Green Bay Packers. Five seconds left on the clock in the fourth quarter of a tight game that already had featured 58 points and nearly 750 yards of offense between the two teams. The Panthers, down 31-27, were facing fourth-and-goal from the Packers' 5-yard line. They had one final shot to get the ball into the end zone to claim victory.
And the call that induced so much spontaneous laughter in what appeared to be the most pressure-packed moment of the entire 1999 season on that surprisingly agreeable, 35-degree December afternoon on the vaunted, supposedly frozen tundra of Lambeau Field?
A quarterback draw.
When head coach George Seifert first blurted out the suggestion on the sideline, both Beuerlein and backup quarterback Steve Bono could not help themselves. They started giggling. Then Bono broke out into full-blown laughter.
"Are you kidding me?" Beuerlein asked Seifert.
"I'm serious. I don't think they'll expect it," Seifert replied.
But the Packers weren't the only ones surprised.
After gathering himself and realizing Seifert was indeed serious about the play call, Beuerlein nodded in agreement.
"I think you're right. I don't think their defense will expect it. I can get you five yards. Let's go with it," Beuerlein said.
Asked about it nearly a decade later, Beuerlein said the decision actually calmed his mind, taking the pressure off. Considering he was playing in his 13th NFL season and had previously scored only two rushing touchdowns in a total of 114 games (both on 1-yard quarterback sneaks), that sounds unusual. But it is what Beuerlein said he felt at that very moment in the game.
"It was one of those moments where it was incredibly relaxed for the pressure of the situation because of the irony of the call and putting the ball in my hands," Beuerlein said.
There was a reason Beuerlein had only scored two previous rushing touchdowns in his career. By his own admission, he was not very fleet-footed by the standards of which most NFL quarterbacks were measured, then or now. But it was only five yards. And he really believed the Green Bay defense would be caught off-guard.
First, though, the former Notre Dame standout had to run back onto the field and sell the play to his teammates. And he had to do so while nearly 61,000 Green Bay fans were making it as difficult as possible for any of the Panthers in the huddle to hear what their quarterback was saying.
"I gave them the play while the timeout was still going on, so they could get their minds around it," Beuerlein said.
He kept his delivery simple.
"Well, you're not going to believe this. But we're running the quarterback draw," Beuerlein told his teammates in the huddle.
Again, there was widespread laughter. Tight end Wesley Walls made it clear that he believed it would make more sense to throw a pass in his direction. After all, Beuerlein had been sharp and precise with his reads and throws the entire game. Walls had posted six catches for 96 yards.
Beuerlein's totals for the day already were staggering. He had completed 29-of-42 passes for 373 yards (then a team record) and three touchdowns without throwing an interception, outdueling Packers quarterback Brett Favre, who had completed 26-of-38 attempts for 302 yards and two touchdowns with one interception.
And Walls wasn't Beuerlein's only option he could target. He also could have thrown to one of his wide receivers. Patrick Jeffers and Muhsin Muhammad each had already made eight receptions with Jeffers' piling up 147 yards receiving and catching both of Beuerlein's touchdown passes.
Center Frank Garcia later admitted being flat-out shocked upon hearing that the plan was for Beuerlein to run the ball instead of throw it.
"We were all surprised," Garcia said. "It was really unexpected. We had to hear it again to make sure that we heard the call right. It was a gutsy call."
So Beuerlein tried to settle his teammates down in the huddle and sell them on the fact that they were indeed going to put the game in his hands - or more accurately on his feet.
"Hey guys, I'm serious here. This is the play we're going to run. Just do your jobs," Beuerlein told them.
Running the football had not been an option for the Panthers on this afternoon. Carolina had gained a total of eight yards rushing the entire game to that point with Beuerlein accounting for three of the yards on three scrambles. Running backs Tshimanga Biakabutuka and Fred Lane hadn't been called on often in Seifert's West Coast offense and hadn't gone anywhere when they had, combining for five yards on nine attempts. They weren't even on the field for the final play.
As the Panthers broke the huddle, Muhammad and running back Anthony Johnson lined up as receivers on the left side, and Jeffers split out to the right.
The Packers lined up in a three-man front rather than with their usual four down defensive linemen. Green Bay had defensive backs spread all over the field, clearly expecting another pass. Beuerlein knew then that he was committed to going through with the designed draw, which the Panthers had practiced sparingly during training camp and had run once with great success in the previous Thursday's practice.
Fullback William Floyd went in motion, emptying the backfield.
Beuerlein got the snap from Garcia and took a three-step drop to make the play look like another pass before he darted off straight up the middle for the end zone behind his willing and able offensive line. Walls kept looking back, thinking Beuerlein would not go through with the draw and still might throw him the football.
"Wesley always thought he was open," a chuckling Beuerlein would say years later.
Up in the Lambeau Field press box, reporters who regularly covered the team could not believe their eyes. To them, it seemed the play unfolded in slow motion.
The Packers, obviously fooled, had only one last chance to stop Beuerlein when safety Rodney Artmore came up and dove at the quarterback just before he reached the goal line. Artmore's helmet cracked Beuerlein in the left knee so hard that Beuerlein mistakenly thought he had seriously injured it.
But Beuerlein came down in the end zone for the game-winning touchdown, collapsing in a mix of complete euphoria and agonizing pain that only was about to get worse - and somehow, even better at the same time.
"I knew that I had scored, and I was so fired up about that, but I took that shot on my knee as I crossed the goal line," Beuerlein said. "I had never been a part of a play like that where I was the ball carrier, so that felt fantastic. At the same time, I thought I had blown my knee out.
"Then I got about 5,000 pounds (of teammates) jumping on me. That made everything worse, but I wouldn't trade it for the world."
In the end, Beuerlein was fine. Better yet, he earned the proverbial last laugh.