Leaf's San Diego failure had ripple effect
Some draft blunders affect much more than the team responsible for the mistake. The Chargers' decision to take Ryan Leaf No. 2 in 1998 impacted the QB fortunes of four franchises, writes Mike Sando.
A decade after Indianapolis made Manning the first player drafted in 1998, leaving Leaf for San Diego at No. 2, the Chargers have recovered. Their playoff victory over Manning's Colts in January proved as much.
But the most regrettable draft outcome in San Diego sports history continues to reverberate well beyond Southern California. Leaf's quick demise impacted the quarterback fortunes of four franchises, demonstrating how draft-day mistakes can carry unintended consequences.
If Leaf had performed to expectations, Michael Vick might never have found his way to Atlanta. Drew Brees never would have flourished in San Diego, perhaps diminishing his chances of landing a long-term deal in New Orleans. The New York Giants might have been unable to swing a draft-day trade with San Diego -- or anyone else -- for franchise quarterback Eli Manning. Philip Rivers certainly wouldn't be lining up under center in San Diego.
"I thought then and I think today, more sure than ever, that Bobby Beathard belongs in the Hall of Fame," Colts president Bill Polian said. "You never hear his name mentioned simply because of that one pick, and to me that is a tragedy. No one, including [former Giants general manager] George Young, has done what Bobby Beathard did in his career."
Few players have undone as much as Leaf managed to undo.
"The one big thing with Ryan, I think he had the ability," said Beathard, who is retired and living in California. "When he came to the first minicamp, even the veterans were saying, 'Man, this guy can throw.' But he self-destructed. It was all the other stuff that interfered with everything he did."
Jon Niednagel was right. The brain-typing consultant had warned the Chargers against drafting Leaf, claiming the quarterback's makeup was a poor fit for the position and a terrible match for then-coach Kevin Gilbride. Beathard said he listened, but he didn't know enough about Niednagel to heed the warning. And he figured no human could possibly clash with easygoing assistant June Jones, then the team's quarterbacks coach. Leaf proved otherwise.
"Guys can be jerks, but I've never seen a guy that worked harder at alienating his teammates," Beathard said. "Junior Seau, Rodney Harrison, they came to me and said, 'Bobby, this guy is killing me.'"
Leaf's final NFL numbers said it all: 21 starts in 25 games, with 14 touchdowns, 36 interceptions and 65 sacks.
The Chargers, back in the market for a quarterback before Leaf turned 25, considered drafting Vick first overall in 2001. Contract negotiations stalled, however, and the Leaf experience was still a powerful deterrent to taking a quarterback early. The Chargers sent the first pick to Atlanta for a package that included the fifth pick, used for running back LaDainian Tomlinson. The Chargers, led at the time by late GM John Butler, then took Brees in the second round.
|Ryan Leaf's inability to become the Chargers' franchise quarterback impacted the futures of four notable quarterbacks. 1. Michael Vick -- Playing in Atlanta ultimately couldn't distance Vick from the negative influences of his past. Might things have turned out differently for Vick in San Diego? The Chargers decided against taking a quarterback early in the 2001 draft, and no one could blame them. 2. Drew Brees -- With the Leaf fiasco behind them, the Chargers armed Brees with a strong ground game and an all-world tight end. Brees took full advantage, eventually earning a long-term deal from New Orleans in free agency. 3. Eli Manning -- The Chargers wanted Manning, but the quarterback balked at the idea, reportedly over concerns about the organization's ability to win. No one did more than Leaf to raise those concerns. 4. Philip Rivers -- Leaf should have been in his prime when the Chargers acquired Rivers' rights from the New York Giants in the draft-day trade that sent Manning to the East Coast. -- Mike Sando|
All because Leaf bombed. And because the Colts wouldn't give San Diego a shot at the quarterback the Chargers wanted most: Peyton Manning.
Beathard had contacted Polian to inquire about the top pick's availability. Told the choice wasn't for sale, the Chargers settled for the second overall pick, acquired from Arizona for the third and 32nd picks, plus a 1999 first-rounder and two players.
"Bill told me at that time that they weren't sure which quarterback they were going to take," Beathard said. "I never knew if that was true or not, but Bill I think was being kind to say that even to this day. I do know who we would have taken. We would have taken Peyton because of my familiarity with his parents and the family. But that didn't mean there was anything bad that way with Ryan at the time."
Predraft talk painted Leaf as the more dynamic athlete and Manning as the more polished product.
"Manning-Leaf was really split when you talked to people," said Colts coach Tony Dungy, who was with Tampa Bay at the time. "We weren't looking for a quarterback, but I remember that era, and it was really split."
Polian said he knew Manning would be the likely choice about three-quarters of the way through the evaluation process. But he made no public declarations.
"I'm not a big proponent of going to college workouts because so many are scripted by the agents," Polian said, "but we worked out both guys personally without a script.
"It was obvious -- very obvious -- after the workout that Peyton far and away had the stronger arm, threw a tighter ball. Everything you had heard, all the scuttle, was that Leaf was the far better athlete, Peyton was a product of the system, Peyton had a weak arm. Just the opposite was true when you watched the workout. It drove home the idea that you better go through the process."
"I loved Fred Taylor," Beathard said. "I really thought that guy was something. He was such an instinctive running back."
Taylor went ninth overall to Jacksonville, where he has 10,715 yards rushing and is coming off a Pro Bowl season at age 32. Woodson and Wistrom have also enjoyed long, productive careers. Wadsworth went to Arizona at No. 3, but knee injuries derailed his career almost before it began.
Had San Diego held onto its 1999 first-round choice, which Arizona used for receiver David Boston at No. 8 overall, the Chargers probably would have drafted defensive tackle Anthony McFarland, who slipped to Tampa Bay at No. 15.
"McFarland was amazing," Beathard said. "He was a guy that could be taken way up probably higher than even the eighth pick and be a good pick, if he controlled his weight."
In the end, the Chargers simply couldn't pass up a shot at a franchise quarterback. And Beathard was well qualified to make the call.
The longtime personnel evaluator helped bring future Super Bowl MVP Mark Rypien to the Washington Redskins as a sixth-round choice in 1986. Beathard made Stan Humphries a sixth-round choice two years later, eventually bringing him to San Diego, where Humphries led the Chargers to their lone Super Bowl appearance.
While Humphries was still developing in 1993, Beathard used the Chargers' eighth-round pick that year for Trent Green, another future NFL starter.
Coaches showed little interest in developing Green, who lasted only one season in San Diego. When Humphries' body broke down, leading to his retirement after the 1997 season, the Chargers suddenly needed a franchise quarterback.
"One scout in our organization said, 'Let's take another position early and then get Brian Griese, who is not that type of quarterback, but he's smart and we can better ourselves with him until a great one comes along,'" Beathard said. "We talked about it briefly, but we thought, 'No, if you can get a franchise guy, we have to do that.'"
Griese went to Denver in the third round in 1998.
In Leaf, the Chargers thought they were getting a player who would impact the NFL for 10 or 15 years -- as a player, not as the man whose failure impacted so many others. Leaf, 31, would be entering his 11th season if all had gone to plan. Instead, he is quietly serving as quarterbacks coach at West Texas A&M.
"It has come out nicely in that Ryan has gotten his life back on track and is in coaching and by all accounts doing well, and that is good, too," Polian said. "When you talk about judging the two guys, people want to say Leaf didn't have any talent. Of course not. He had the charisma and leadership. He was just immature. He was not ready to come into the league and handle the burden of leading the franchise to a Super Bowl championship."
Leaf wasn't the only draft bust of 1998. Here is a rundown of 1998's first round:
|1. Indianapolis||Peyton Manning||QB||Active|
|Comment: Prolific passer has Super Bowl victory to go with gaudy stats.|
|2. San Diego||Ryan Leaf||QB||Retired|
|Comment: Colossal bust retired after four seasons with 14 TDs and 36 INTs.|
|3. Arizona||Andre Wadsworth||DE||Retired|
|Comment: Knee injuries derailed his career almost before it began.|
|4. Oakland||Charles Woodson||CB||Active|
|Comment: Physical cover corner a mainstay of Packers defense.|
|5. Chicago||Curtis Enis||RB||Retired|
|Comment: Career lasted three seasons and 456 forgettable carries.|
|6. St. Louis||Grant Wistrom||DE||Retired|
|Comment: High-motor style helped Rams, Seahawks reach Super Bowls.|
|7. New Orleans||Kyle Turley||OT||Retired|
|Comment: Started 107 games over nine seasons before injuries took over.|
|8. Dallas||Greg Ellis||DE||Active|
|Comment: Solid starter coming off 12½ sack season, Pro Bowl appearance.|
|9. Jacksonville||Fred Taylor||RB||Active|
|Comment: Still going strong after 10,715 yards and 61 TDs.|
|10. Baltimore||Duane Starks||CB||Retired|
|Comment: Interception return for a TD helped Ravens win Super Bowl XXXV.|
|11. Philadelphia||Tra Thomas||OT||Active|
|Comment: Pro Bowl tackle anchors left side of Eagles' line.|
|12. Atlanta||Keith Brooking||OLB||Active|
|Comment: Pro Bowl linebacker hasn't missed a start in past seven seasons.|
|13. Cincinnati||Takeo Spikes||OLB||Unsigned|
|Comment: Injuries have prevented Spikes from maintaining Pro Bowl form.|
|14. Carolina||Jason Peter||DE||Retired|
|Comment: Neck issues forced him to retire after four seasons and 20 starts.|
|15. Seattle||Anthony Simmons||OLB||Retired|
|Comment: Never lived up to potential as part of underachieving defenses.|
|16. Tennessee||Kevin Dyson||WR||Retired|
|Comment: Played in a Super Bowl, but never exceeded 825 yards in a season.|
|17. Cincinnati||Brian Simmons||OLB||Free agent|
|Comment: Seasons with Bengals, Saints have made for unremarkable career.|
|18. New England||Robert Edwards||RB||CFL|
|Comment: Has spent time in CFL after blowing out knee in rookie game at Pro Bowl.|
|19. Green Bay||Vonnie Holliday||DE||Active|
|Comment: Solid starter has 51½ sacks for Packers, Chiefs and Dolphins.|
|20. Detroit||Terry Fair||CB||Retired|
|Comment: Started 48 games for Lions, but hasn't been a factor since 2001.|
|21. Minnesota||Randy Moss||WR||Active|
|Comment: Has posted seven seasons with at least 1,200 yards receiving.|
|22. New England||Tebucky Jones||FS||Retired|
|Comment: Won Super Bowl with Patriots, but never validated first-round status.|
|23. Oakland||Mo Collins||G||Retired|
|Comment: Helped Raiders reach Super Bowl, but career shortened by injuries.|
|24. N.Y. Giants||Shaun Williams||SS||Retired|
|Comment: Started four consecutive seasons for Giants before knee injuries intervened.|
|25. Jacksonville||Donovin Darius||SS||Free agent|
|Comment: Productive starter teamed with Deon Grant to anchor Jags' secondary.|
|26. Pittsburgh||Alan Faneca||G||Active|
|Comment: Pro Bowl guard signed massive free-agent deal with Jets last month.|
|27. Kansas City||Victor Riley||OT||Retired|
|Comment: Started 93 of 111 games played before retiring after 2005 season.|
|28. San Francisco||R.W. McQuarters||CB||Active|
|Comment: Versatile if unspectacular, McQuarters helped Giants to Super Bowl XLII victory.|
|29. Miami||John Avery||RB||CFL|
|Comment: Set Dolphins records as a rookie, but has made his mark in XFL, CFL.|
|30. Denver||Marcus Nash||WR||AFL|
|Comment: Won Super Bowls with Broncos, Ravens before settling in the AFL.|
Mike Sando covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
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