Peyton Manning, or Ryan Leaf?
The very question sounds too ludicrous for us even to contemplate now, 15 years later. Yet in the weeks leading up to the 1998 draft, that very question was on everybody’s lips in the NFL.
Peyton Manning, of Tennessee and Ryan Leaf of Washington State were considered the two standout talents of a draft that also saw Charles Woodson, Fred Taylor, Takeo Spikes and Randy Moss taken in the first round.
Both Manning and Leaf entered the draft having had excellent final seasons at college. Manning had led the Tennessee Volunteers to an 11-2 record and the SEC championship, then went on to lose to #2 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. Leaf’s Washington State Cougars finished the year 10-2 and lost to Michigan in the Rose Bowl, after winning the PAC-10.
Both Leaf and Manning threw for almost 4,000 yards in their impressive years. Leaf had 34 touchdowns to his name, Manning 36. Both notched up just 11 interceptions.
They also both finished in the top three of the Heisman voting, Manning pipped Leaf to second spot, both of them behind Woodson.
Teams across the NFL were impressed, Manning was generally considered to be the ‘safe’ bet, but Leaf was thought to have the stronger arm, and the higher ceiling. Of twenty NFL general managers polled prior to the draft, fourteen of them preferred Ryan Leaf. They liked his cannon of an arm, his greater mobility, and interestingly felt he was a “more promising long term prospect as a franchise calibre player”.
The Indianapolis Colts were to be first on the clock, coming off a 3-13 season in 2007. They were in the market for a Quarterback, having just traded Jim Harbaugh to the Baltimore Ravens following their disastrous campaign.
The San Diego chargers were supposed to pick at #3, but were impressed enough with both Leaf and Manning that they traded their first and second round picks in 1998, plus a first rounder the following year, to Arizona. It was a kings ransom, but the Chargers desperately needed a Quarterback having just lost veteran Stan Humphries following a series of concussions. With the #2 pick secured, their choice was simple. If the Colts chose Leaf, the Chargers would get Manning. If Manning went to Indianapolis, San Diego would swoop for Ryan Leaf.
During the players individual workouts, both impressed the Colts with their physical abilities. Manning also performed very well in his interview. Leaf did not. In fact, he didn’t even show up. He later blamed it on a miscommunication, but the Colts (who were already edging toward Manning) saw this as a red flag. According to then President of the Colts, Bill Polian, they were now “99%” behind Manning.
And so it came to be, on April 18th 1998, that the Indianapolis Colts selected Peyton Manning with their first pick. Nobody was shocked when Ryan Leaf’s name was called out second, for the San Diego Chargers.
When Leaf picked up a $31 million deal, with 11 million guaranteed, he said “I’m looking forward to a 15 year career, a couple of trips to the Super Bowl and a parade through downtown San Diego” Manning would collect $45 million in an incentive laden 6 year contract.
Before the 1998 season even started, Leaf was making a name for himself at the Chargers facility, and for all the wrong reasons. He skipped the final day of the mandatory rookie symposium, and the NFL took $10,000 out of his pocket as punishment. Shortly after, a few senior Chargers attempted to ‘welcome’ the rookie to the team in time honoured fashion. They went out for a meal in San Diego, and billed their night out to Leaf’s credit card. It’s not clever, nor particularly adult, but it’s gone on since time immemorial. Leaf took unkindly to the incident though, and complained to Chargers GM Bobby Beathard. The rebuttal didn’t sit well with the veterans, who gave Leaf some knocks in training camp, Junior Seau earning ‘high fives’ all round after delivering a big hit on the young Quarterback.
In Indianapolis, Peyton Manning was having no such troubles, settling smoothly into his new team, and quietly impressing them.
Both rookie quarterbacks started games at home on week 1 of the 1998 season, Manning threw 3 interceptions and a touchdown, in a 24-15 loss to the Dolphins, whilst Leaf came out victorious against the Buffalo Bills, despite fumbling his first snap as a professional and throwing a pair of interceptions in a 16-14 win.
Leaf would win again in week 2, in a 13-7 victory over the Tennessee Oilers. Manning was again on the losing side, in New England, with his team being blown away in a 29-6 loss.
Leaf had won in his first two appearances. Few people could have guessed that he’d only win another two games for the rest of his career.
Manning’s first victory came in week 5 that year, against none other than Ryan Leaf’s chargers, Leaf failed to throw any touchdown passes in a 17-12 loss.
The Chargers won 5 of their games in 1998, with Leaf responsible for 3 of them (10 appearances), not terrible for a rookie quarterback in the NFL, but that only represented half of the story. Leaf was making a name for himself as a notoriously bad PR figure, he was obnoxious to reporters, responded angrily to fan heckling, and was gaining a reputation for having a poor work ethic. Chargers safety Rodney Harrison described Leaf’s rookie year as “a nightmare”
The two young quarterback’s had hugely different sophomore seasons. Leaf injured his shoulder in the Chargers first training camp practice, and wouldn’t play all year. Manning on the other hand was still working hard improving his game, and showing himself to be a team player and media darling.
Manning would lead the Colts to a 13-3 record and the AFC east championship. Manning himself was named to the Pro-Bowl, the first of 12 career appearances in the all star event.
2000 saw the return of Leaf, though it was certainly a less than impressive year for the Charger. Rumours abounded that the team were looking to cut their losses and release him, but he started the first 2 games, which both ended in losses. Leaf threw one touchdown and five interceptions in the two games before being benched for game 3 (though he would play that week as Moses Moreno came out of the game with a shoulder injury). Leaf would again start in week 4, though he injured his wrist in the game and would sit out until the end of November.
Manning hadn’t missed a game yet for the Colts, and though his team were up and down, he was still leading them well and making a mark on those around him.
The Colts again made the playoffs, this time with a 10-6 record, and their choice to pick Manning was starting to pay dividends. The Chargers were heading backwards, and finished 2000 with a 1-15 record, 7 fewer wins than they achieved in 1999, without Ryan Leaf.
It was the final straw for the Chargers, and they released Leaf. During his time with the team he had thrown 33 interceptions against 13 touchdowns, had appeared in only 21 games (Manning had suited up 50 times for the Colts in the same period). Leaf’s completion percentage was hovering around 50%, and regularly dropping lower.
2001 saw Leaf get picked up by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who kicked the tyres on the young triggerman, but having not been impressed, told him that he’d have to take a pay cut and accept demotion to 4th Quarterback status. Leaf refused and was released prior to the season starting. A few weeks later he found himself facing a medical at the Dallas Cowboys, but he failed the test and was again released. A month later the Cowboys did sign him, after their starter, Quincy Carter got injured. Leaf would play just 4 times for the Cowboys, throwing three interceptions, just one touchdown, and still completing only half of his passes.
2001 was the year that Peyton Manning became the Quarterback that we recognise today. The Colts unveiled the no-huddle offense that was almost solely under Manning’s control. The promising talent had become the teams undeniable leader. The team only won six games, but Manning’s offense was the second highest scoring outfit in the league. The Colts missed out on the playoffs, but things were looking very bright in Indianapolis.
Amazingly, the Seattle Seahawks offered Ryan Leaf a one year deal in May 2002. They planned to allow his wrist to fully heal and bring him along slowly. Leaf was initially excited and eagerly attended the ‘Hawks Spring mini-camps, before bizarrely retiring just prior to the start of training camp. Leaf was just 26 years old, and his NFL playing career was over.
Manning had by this time led his team to two playoff berths, been to Pro-Bowls, set franchise records, and shown himself as a true leader on and off the field. Ryan leaf had played half the games Manning had, thrown far fewer touchdowns, far more interceptions, had been cut by 3 teams, had shown himself to be anything other than a team player, and consistently angered his team-mates, bosses, the media and fans.
Fast forwarding over the next decade, Manning has since gone on to win 4 league MVP awards, a Super Bowl win and Super Bowl MVP (XLI), 6 times AFC player of the year, become the fastest man ever to reach 50,000 passing yards, the fastest ever to 400 touchdowns, and fastest ever to 4,000 completions. He made the NFL 2000’s all decade team, and is considered a locked in first ballot Hall of Famer when he finally hangs up his cleats.
Leaf went on to a brief career as a financial consultant in San Diego, before returning to Washington to study again. He then went on to join Texas A&M as a volunteer Quarterbacks coach in 2006. He would be put on indefinite leave a few days before resigning his post in 2008 following an incident where he allegedly asked a player for some pills to help with his wrist pains.
In 2009, Leaf was arrested on burglary and controlled substance charges whilst he was on a drug rehabilitation programme and was later sentenced to 10 years probation on drug related charges.
In March 2012, 10 days after Peyton Manning signed a $96 million contract with the Denver Broncos, Ryan Leaf was again arrested on charges of burglary, theft and drug related incidents. He would later be sentenced to seven years in a correctional facility, with two years suspended if he abided by the rules set out for him.
In January of 2013, as Manning again took to the field in the NFL postseason, Leaf was remanded in Montana state prison, after being found guilty of behaviour that breached the conditions of his drug rehabilitation programme, it is said that threatening a staff member was among his list of violations.
Ryan Leaf has been singled out as the biggest bust in NFL draft history. It’s not hard to see why, the Chargers paid a princely sum for his athletic abilities and high ceiling, but his character issues and terrible work ethic were his (and the teams) undoing.
So as we approach April’s draft once again, it’s a timely reminder for teams to do their homework, regardless of how good a prospect looks on the field. Ryan Leaf is living proof of the pitfalls that can lie out there for the unsuspecting GM or head coach.
Yet of course, they might always find themselves drafting the next Peyton Manning.