Living History: The Ryan Leaf story
I interviewed Ryan Leaf for my podcast the other day (iTunes or SI.com), and it brought back lots of memories about the 1998 draft, when Peyton Manning was the first pick, by Indianapolis, and Leaf the second, by San Diego. And you know the rest. Manning's had a Hall of Fame career, and Leaf was a major bust in five seasons with San Diego, Tampa Bay and Dallas.
I got this reaction from a few of you about the Leaf Podcast: Who cares? He's irrelevant.
Not really. It's one of the most fascinating stories in recent football history, and with the fervor over the potential star-studded 2012 quarterback draft class, I thought I would take you back to the month before the 1998 draft. That May, I took a VHS tape of 30 plays from Manning's 1997 season with Tennessee and 30 plays from Leaf's last season with Washington State. I sat down with six men, independent of each other, and showed them the 60 plays, and asked each who they would pick.
The six: brilliant offensive innovator Sid Gillman (since deceased), coach Mike Shanahan, analyst and former quarterback Phil Simms, then-Tampa Bay personnel czar Jerry Angelo, former 49er coach Bill Walsh and UCLA coach Bob Toledo, who had faced both quarterbacks in their college careers.
Now people look back and wonder, How could the Colts have had a second thought about who to pick? It had to be Manning, all the way. In spring 1998, the new ESPN The Magazine had a big story about which quarterback would turn out better in the NFL and said about Leaf: "He possesses an 'I don't give a crap' attitude that has proven essential to Super Bowl quarterbacks from Stabler to McMahon to Favre. Come 2018, Ryan Leaf, not Manning, will be strutting up to a podium in Canton.' '' It's easy to shake your head at that now, but there was a real debate.
Points from my SI story the week before the 1998 draft that I find interesting today:
* Sid Gillman, 86, watching tape of Manning throwing a look-one-way-throw-the-other screen against Mississippi: "Now this is a pro quarterback. Is that a beautiful throw, or is that a beautiful throw? I'd draft this kid in a second."
* Walsh said he wouldn't take either player with the first pick, though he favored Manning ... and said he had a better arm than Johnny Unitas. "I don't see Favre or Elway. I see those guys on the next level. But Manning seems to be more pro-ready than Leaf ... I'd pick another top player, and then I'd take [Michigan quarterback] Brian Griese in the second round. I think he could have the tools to be special."
* Simms was incredulous when the question about Manning's questionable arm strength was posed. "His arm's plenty good. You know how many times Drew Bledsoe really aired it out last year? I mean, 50, 60 yards in the air? Five. Ten, maybe. In the NFL, you make your living throwing the intermediate pass, and look at how many good intermediate throws we're seeing Peyton make."
* The same red off-the-field flags the Colts saw about Leaf, Angelo saw as Leaf's weight ballooned to 261 at the NFL Scouting Combine. "I was at the combine for the weigh-in," said Angelo, "and it really surprised me. Here's what could be the biggest day of your life, the day you're going to expose yourself to your future employers for the first time, and you show up out of shape and overweight. To me, that's a signal. The quarterback has to be the CEO of your team. You have to trust him. I'd have some hard questions if that happened and we were going to pick him."
* Gillman on Leaf's pass drop and release: "He's way too slow. This is the age of the blitzer in the NFL. He'd better get coached out of that in a hurry."
* Angelo on Manning, sounding eerily prescient: "He'll handle the inferno of going to a 3-13 team. He's a sure player."
Interesting note from Leaf on the podcast: He regularly texts Manning, and he says Manning has been a big supporter of his through some of his worst times. Leaf had a golf-ball-sized tumor removed from the base of his brain in May, and later this month he'll begin six weeks of radiation to neutralize what couldn't be surgically removed. The tumor was benign.