Butler passing on Vick put Bolts on a run

San Diego Chargers RB LaDainian Tomlinson

It’s a name that likely won’t get mentioned in tonight’s Chargers-Steelers game.

It should be.

John Butler, the Chargers’ late general manager, deserves accolades during the “Monday Night Football” telecast. When cameras focus on Steelers quarterback Michael Vick, remember Butler’s shrewd move which transformed the Chargers.

Vick, as the 2001 draft’s top pick, was headed to San Diego. He was the reward for the Chargers’ 1-15 season the previous year as a franchise burned by Ryan Leaf was primed to receive the coolest player in college.

But before Vick got to San Diego, Butler, who died in 2003, got to the Atlanta Falcons.

By the time Butler was done working over Atlanta, he swapped the first overall selection for the fifth pick and a second-rounder. He also secured a 2002 second-round selection and wide receiver Tim Dwight.

At No. 5,  Butler got the No. 1 running back in team history.

And the rest is, well, countless Sundays with “L.T., L.T.” ricocheting around Qualcomm Stadium.

With TCU’s LaDainian Tomlinson in his pocket, Butler snatched Purdue quarterback Drew Brees in the second round.

It was a draft which help flip the Chargers from being a doormat to dominating.

The Chargers went 5-11 in Tomlinson’s rookie year, which was coach Mike Riley’s last season. Marty Schottenheimer was hired and with a dynamic back to run his “Marty Ball” offense, the Chargers would eventually blossom.

With Tomlinson carrying the ball and Brees flinging it, the Chargers went 12-4 in 2004, winning the AFC West for the first time since their Super Bowl season of 1994. The Chargers would claim the AFC West in five of the next six seasons.

Vick, of course, was a star in his own right, but he had issues. While he was incarcerated for his role in a dog-fighting controversy, Tomlinson became the face of the Chargers. Tomlinson was the NFL’s Man of the Year in 2006, for his work to those needing a helping a hand.

But it was at Butler’s hand that the Chargers morphed into a contender.

Maybe without the trade — which also netted cornerback Tay Cody and wide receiver Reche Caldwell — Vick would have led the Chargers to even grander accomplishments.

Then again, the impact Tomlinson, the 2006 NFL MVP, had on and off the field in San Diego would be difficult to eclipse.

Butler’s last-minute blockbuster was heaven sent for Chargers fans. I wasn’t a booster of the trade at first glance, but only for personal reasons. While in New York for the 2001 draft, I had plans for the Yankees-Red Sox game the night the trade was announced.

As was written this summer when Tomlinson’s announcement into the Chargers Ring of Honor:

In the draft’s lead-up, I interviewed Vick, his relatives and even his old coach at the Boys and Girls Club.

An extensive Vick story was crafted — not bad, really — on how the scrambling quarterback reached the pinnacle of being the draft’s top pick. And what his arrival would mean to the woeful Chargers, still reeling from the fallout of taking Ryan Leaf No. 2 in 1998.

But No. 1 on my list was getting the Vick copy to the North County Times sports desk and sprinting from Midtown to the Bronx. The Yankees were wrestling with the Boston Red Sox that night and few pairings match the drama those teams present.

Then came the call that changed my evening and the Chargers’ franchise.

Then-general manager John Butler had traded out of the top spot. The transaction had a lot of moving parts, but the biggest one was Butler going down to the fifth overall selection, where he drafted Tomlinson.

Great move for the Chargers; bad move from someone trying to reach 161st Street and River for the first pitch.

Those Yankees tickets stayed put as my fingers started moving, writing a story which trumped the Vick copy.

Vick is still moving as well, although he’s not nearly the moving target he once was at age 35.

But Butler deserves a bow for a trade that was one for the ages. In a bold move, Butler helped make the Chargers relevant again.

+ Contact Jay Paris at jparis@bcaradio.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jparis_sports.

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