Why should the average football fan watch the painfully long NFL Draft as Radio City Music Hall becomes center stage for the next generation of NFL players?
To answer that question, simply take a look back at the Draft a decade ago when Peyton Manning and Ryan leaf were the main topics of conversation in the third week of April.
1998 Draft: The Perfect Storm
Entering the 1998 NFL Draft, the Indianapolis Colts were coming off of a season that ranked among the worst in franchise history, finishing with a record of 3-13. The San Diego Chargers shared similar success in the 1997 campaign with an equally embarrassing record of 4-12.
As the Pulitzer Prize winning Dave Anderson of the New York Times said before the draft, "Someday these two [Leaf and Manning] might be what John Elway and Dan Marino are now--on the way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame together after being drafted in 1983 together."
Ryan Leaf enjoyed an illustrious collegiate career for the Cougars, leading his team to their first Rose Bowl appearance in 67 years during his junior season. That year, Leaf was also named the Pac-10 offensive player of the year, first-team All-American and accumulated the second-best passer rating in college football.
His laid-back attitude on and off the field led many scouts to believe that he would handle the pressures of the NFL better than Manning, who had not performed well at times in big games during his career with the Tennessee Volunteers.
Despite the fact that most NFL scouts were impressed by Leaf's potential, his coaches at Washington State and a number of family members felt that he would benefit from returning for his senior season. Ignoring their advice, Leaf decided to forego his final year with the Cougars and declared himself eligible for the 1998 NFL Draft.
Similar to the success Leaf had at the collegiate level, Peyton Manning's career at Tennessee earned him the status of a legend in Knoxville and throughout the SEC.Similar to the success Leaf had at the collegiate level, Peyton Manning's career at Tennessee earned him the status of a legend in Knoxville and throughout the SEC. At the time of his graduation, he owned 33 Tennessee passing records and left with an astounding win-loss record of 39-6 as a starter.
With a strong work ethic, phenomenal passing ability and desire to win that left an impression on nearly every NFL scout, Manning was unquestionably one of the top two quarterbacks available in the draft.
"I've never seen a guy with so much ability and the dedication to match," said then Buccaneers coach Tony Dungy speaking of Manning.
While Manning and Leaf were considered the top prospects available, there was controversy about Manning's long-term potential in comparison to Leaf. While Manning was more polished and mature coming out of college, many scouts and analysts thought Leaf's superior size and strength gave him the raw talent necessary to surpass Manning in the long run.
Another key factor that worried general managers about Manning was the fact that in his four years at Tennessee he was never able to defeat the Florida Gators and often struggled in important games. His poor performance in the 42-17 loss to the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the 1997 Orange Bowl only added to the perception that he was incabable of winning "big games."
Even with their flaws, the San Diego Chargers felt so confident that either or Ryan Leaf could lead their franchise back to prominence that they traded two first-round picks, a second-round pick, linebacker Patrick Sapp and four-time Pro-bowler Eric Metcalf to the Arizona Cardinals for the second selection in the d guaranteeing the chance to select one of the two QBs.
Draft Day 1998
On April 18th, 1998, the Indianapolis Colts selected , leaving the Chargers to select Ryan Leaf. An ecstatic Kevin Gilbride, then Chargers head coach, immediately notified NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue that the Chargers had selected Leaf with the second pick.
"I've knownfor a long time and I really love the kid," said Charger's offensive coordinator June Jones, "But when I went and watched Ryan Leaf workout he was impressive. I came away excited about coaching Ryan Leaf. He is going to be a franchise guy."
The initial enthusiasm felt by Gilbride and Jones after drafting Leaf was a sentiment shared throughout the Chargers organization.
You can go five to ten years without getting a chance to draft a quarterback like this. Former GM Bobby Beathard speaking of Leaf
Almost immediately after the draft, the Chargers offered Leaf a four-year contract worth $31.25 million that included an $11.25 million signing bonus; at the time, the highest amount ever guaranteed to a rookie.
Throughout the 1998 preseason and the first two games of the regular season, Leaf lived up to the lofty expectations and it appeared as if he would indeed lead the Charger's return to glory.
He became the first rookie quarterback to win his first two starts since John Elway in the 1983 season while Manning struggled to get his feet under him in his early NFL starts.
Leaf's Fall From Glory
While the initial excitement of drafting an elite collegiate quarterback was great, it quickly became clear that the Chargers' decision would be a mistake of historical proportions.
In a 23-7 loss to thein week three, Leaf went a miserable 1-for-15 passing for a total of four yards, also fumbling three times and being intercepted twice.
After the self described "worst game of his career," Leaf launched an obscenity-laced tirade directed at a cameraman who was recording post-game locker room interviews for local television. Moments after tearing into the cameraman, his harsh comments shifted direction towards teammate, who stepped in to stop the exchange of words.
The third game of his NFL career effectively summed up his career as a whole; disappointment on the field, extremely poor media relations and a lack of respect for the position he was in off the field and, most importantly, a lack of respect for teammates.
After three failed seasons with the Chargers, Leaf was cut due to his continued poor behavior off the field and lack of ability to win games on the field.
Rather than resurrecting the franchise as he had initially promised, he left the team with the worst single-season record in franchise history and effectively marked himself as the biggest flop in NFL draft history.
Adding to the embarrassment of Leaf's failures, two of the draft picks that were traded to Arizona were used to take Corey Chavous in the 2nd round in 1998 and David Boston in the 1st round in 1999, both of which went on to be Pro Bowlers.
"I've never seen an athlete work harder at destroying himself and his career than this guy," former Charger GM Bobby Beathard said after releasing Leaf in 2000.
Who will be this year's "Ryan Leaf"? Obviously if anybody knew, they would not be drafted very high. Today, at least one team will make a decision that wrecks their franchise for the immediate future and torments fans forever.
That being said, there will also be at least one team that makes a key decision in building a Super Bowl caliber team.
And that, along with the possiblity of a disastrous mistake, makes the NFL Draft worth watching.