Posted January 21, 2014

Agent: Manning was first pick in ’98 draft because Ryan Leaf sabotaged the process

Indianapolis Colts, San Diego Chargers
Ryan Leaf and Peyton Manning at the 1998 NFL draft. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Ryan Leaf and Peyton Manning at the 1998 NFL draft. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

The main story of the 1998 NFL draft was, of course, the decision by the Indianapolis Colts to select Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning over Washington State quarterback Ryan Leaf with the first overall pick. Team president Bill Polian and head coach Jim Mora found it a tough decision — which seems laughable in retrospect — because back then, Leaf may have had more physical upside.

But Leaf showed up for the scouting combine overweight and claimed that he’d be heading off to Las Vegas if he was taken first overall. Manning, meanwhile, told the Colts that he’d spend the next fifteen years kicking their butts if he went anywhere else, and Polian and Mora wisely selected Manning. Leaf was the NFL’s most incendiary bust, while Manning is on his way to his third Super Bowl — not with the Colts, but it’s safe to say that the organic choice of Manning turned Indy’s franchise around.

At least, that’s what we all believed until an excerpt from sports agent Leigh Steinberg’s new book, The Agent, was released this week. Steinberg, one of the most successful agents of all time and Cameron Crowe’s inspiration for Jerry Maguire, was Leaf’s agent back then, and he now says that his client preferred to play in San Diego, whose Chargers had the second pick.

So, according to Steinberg, agent and player hatched a devious plan (via For the Win).

It was not until several months before the draft that I realized Ryan might present challenges I didn’t anticipate. By then, it was too late.

“No way do I want to play in Indianapolis,” he told me, referring to the Colts, who owned the No. 1 pick. Instead, because of the exceptional weather and the more laid-back lifestyle, he preferred the San Diego Chargers, who would go second.

“That’s fine,” I warned him, “but the way to achieve this is not exactly going to help your image. You’ll get a lot of criticism.” Ryan didn’t care about his image, though, only his destination.

Making his wish come true would not be easy. The Colts leaned toward choosing Ryan. Many scouts also saw him as a better prospect than Peyton Manning. Hard to believe now, isn’t it?

I told Ryan it would do no good to approach Colts GM Jim Irsay. Irsay saw the sport the same way he viewed his other passion, rock ’n’ roll. Just as musicians tended to be a bit eccentric, so did football players, and that did not stop him from drafting Jeff George or trading for Eric Dickerson. “Leigh,” he used to say, “it’s about the freaking talent.” If someone is that gifted, in Irsay’s opinion, you simply find a way to deal with his personality.

Instead, the case needed to be made to the Indianapolis coach, Jim Mora, and it couldn’t come from anything Ryan said. It had to come from what he did, or, rather, did not do.

“If you go to the combine,” I told Ryan, “but fail to show up for a meeting with Mora, that should do it. Jim is a real prideful person who has a tendency to explode. I am not recommending you do this, but if you are desperate to go to San Diego, this is the way.”

Ryan approved, but I first cleared the idea with Chargers general manager Bobby Beathard, lest San Diego also question my client’s reliability. Beathard went along with the ruse. If he’d had a problem, Ryan would’ve shown up for his meeting with Mora. Some purists argue players should not have the right to dictate where they start their pro career, but aren’t college graduates who don’t play football allowed to choose where they want to work and live? The draft was not handed down by Moses as part of the Ten Commandments. The draft, let’s be honest, is a control mechanism designed to prevent college athletes from exercising the same freedoms everyone else takes for granted and to limit their leverage in contract negotiations. It is important to separate the honor of being selected from the concept of not being given the freedom of choice. Just because athletes are well compensated doesn’t change the underlying principle.

Once Ryan was a no-show, Mora, as anticipated, went ballistic. I defended my player, naturally, dismissing the coach’s response as another Mora meltdown. As I’d anticipated, Ryan was criticized, but the plan achieved its purpose. The Colts took Manning. Something tells me the folks in Indianapolis have never regretted that decision.

Well, Steinberg was right about the challenges Leaf would present. But Polian vehemently disputed Steinberg’s account of this plan when he spoke with ESPN’s Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic about it on Tuesday.

“Agents cannot manipulate anything in the draft,” he said, via Pro Football Talk. “Leigh and other agents for years and years have told kids that they can get players drafted by a certain club at a certain spot, and nothing could be further from the truth. That assumes that we on the club side are idiots, that we’re able to be manipulated, that we don’t do our homework, that we don’t watch the tape, that we don’t go all the way back to the junior high school coach and high school principal, teachers, doing our due diligence. It’s just the kind of hubris that existed among agents years ago where they told kids flat-out, ‘I can get you taken here, I can get you taken there.’ Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Bill Polian talking about hubris? You don’t say. In any case, Polian did confirm that Leaf missed a meeting, and that Steinberg lied about the reason after the fact, claiming that he and Leaf had been given the wrong time for the meeting.

“I remember Leigh telling the press that we had blown it because we hadn’t given him the right time,” Polian continued. “I knew that was false because I made the call. I’m glad after 16 years he’s finally told the truth.”

Former Chargers general manager Bobby Beathard, who pulled the trigger on Leaf with that second pick, said in response to Steinberg’s claims that “we absolutely wanted to draft Peyton,” and that when Leaf showed up to play, he was so out of shape, he couldn’t even complete the warmup jog around the field. He was out of pro football for good after the 2001 season.

These days, Leaf has more time to stay in shape — he’s serving a seven-year prison term on burglary and controlled substance charges.

75 comments
mattbenge
mattbenge

This as to be some of the most shallow and ignorant reasoning ever... 

"Some purists argue players should not have the right to dictate where they start their pro career, but aren’t college graduates who don’t play football allowed to choose where they want to work and live? The draft was not handed down by Moses as part of the Ten Commandments. The draft, let’s be honest, is a control mechanism designed to prevent college athletes from exercising the same freedoms everyone else takes for granted and to limit their leverage in contract negotiations. It is important to separate the honor of being selected from the concept of not being given the freedom of choice."

College Grads take jobs where they can get them usually; they can choose to work for or not to work for offering companies/corporations. Any college draft prospect can choose to work for or not for work for the NFL. 

Max10
Max10

I am from the State of Washington. I watched in the mid 1990s as the national media suddenly were in awe of Ryan Leaf after honestly, one(1) season of solid play. It ended in a Rose Bowl loss, but he was objectively a very good QB.

I recall being at the Holiday Bowl that year, as the UW Huskies played the Texas Longhorns, and sitting next to typical toothless WSU fans telling me we sucked, and Leaf was the second coming of Christ.

I'll refrain from the rest of our debate (and the fact while how hard I tried, I was not able to remove any additional teeth from WSU fans), but to the educated fans from the NW, while we all wanted Leaf to do well, we all knew full-well there was baggage. Seems only the Chargers didn't do their homework.

I watched Leaf warm-up before some pre-season games, and marveled at how he could throw 60-years with very little arc on the ball. But then it fell apart.

In the end, I think Manning and Leaf, on a 'physical basis', were very similar. It's frankly sad to see how from a mental perspective, Leaf was not ready, and how his life has become very tough for him.

It's easy to be a 'Monday morning QB', but most in the NW, and PAC10 (at the time) never understood how Leaf and Manning could be  'coin flip'.

Look at where they both are now. EVERYONE (even a Seahawks fan like me - likes Manning). I don't even know what the latest is with Ryan Leaf - and while a rival to my school (UW) college-wise, I hope Ryan can clean things up and have a great 2nd half of his life.

It truly is amazing how different these 2 studs ended up.

I really do hope Ryan can find happiness in his life, as he is in SUCH a different place from his draft competitor (Peyton -  whose career has been the complete opposite. Just think about how this must haunt this man.

I wish them both the best.

Still - Go Seahawks... but also, there is NO LOGIC that Peyton should have less Super Bowl wins than his brother (also a great guy). As I told my 16-year old son, in Peyton, he is likely seeing the best QB to EVER play the game at this level, and who knows how long it will be before we see another Peyton.


Good luck Mr. Leaf. I hope you are happy.

rodp236
rodp236

I find the story interesting---lots of little things go on in backrooms before the draft. Manning eventually worked out, but he was no shining star fresh out of the gate.

peauxsucent1
peauxsucent1

Sounds like Leigh was taking some of Leaf's drugs when he wrote this book.



Or was off the wagon again.

Joe R2
Joe R2

Leaf and Steinberg both deserved what they got in life...

Hoggy
Hoggy

Leigh Steinberg actually wants us all to believe he was actually DOING HIS JOB by going along with the idea of NOT trying to get his client the number 1 slot money - that he was doing his job by going along with the plan that would assure his client the LESSER DEAL out of the two. 

I'd love to know which day of agent school they taught that philosophy.  

David G
David G

Does anyone outside of Steinberg think the Colts actually considered Leaf for more than say a 5 minute conversation? 

DominiqueJohnson
DominiqueJohnson

Thanks to Leaf and Steinbergs duplicitous behavior we (Indy) got Manning, a Lombardi trophy and a nice shiny new stadium to host the Super Bowl in...

TruthTeller
TruthTeller

Steinberg is just trying to make himself relevant.  This is a non-story that cannot be proven.  The perfect argument.

mbroncofan
mbroncofan

Leaf thought he was another Elway.

StephenMichaelW
StephenMichaelW

As a Coug I love watching Leaf play in college, but we all knew at the school that Leaf was a complete Co*k-Su*ker...I guess that's life.

RobertSmith
RobertSmith

Leaf's head made Manning #1 pick.  The kind of thinking that he (allegedly) used here is a perfect example of why he never had what it took to be an NFL QB.

Nine Vegetable
Nine Vegetable

Note to all:  Anytime you hear scouts, pundits, etc., say things like, "He has all the physical tools" - run the other way.  Leaf/Manning is exactly why.  There is so much more to playing the position than how far you can throw the ball, how much you can bench and how fast you can sprint.  The smart scouts know this.  I'm not sure any of the ESPN pundits do.

ianlinross
ianlinross

Why didn't Leaf and Steinberg just straight out tell the Colts, if you draft me, I will not report. Just like John Elway. Why concoct this ruse? Says something about their integrity.


hans k
hans k

I was in Indy when they had to choose.. The ' experts'  are off in so many times. You can't call them experts..

heardhimsay
heardhimsay

Funny how SD ended up drafting Eli Manning and he didn't want to play there.

ChadCollins
ChadCollins

Perhaps in a few years Robert Griffin will be named along with leaf as well!

Joshua13
Joshua13

People probably didn't think much of it at the time, but Leaf's wearing a homeless man's suit was foreshadowing

doublejtrain68
doublejtrain68

I will admit that I thought Leaf was going to be a superstar in the NFL after seeing him in his first pre-season game. I'm still trying to decide if he, Jamarcus Russell, Akili Smith, Tim Couch or Heath Shuler (on the professional level only) was the biggest bust in NFL history. 

Max10
Max10

...and I am being very honest. I hope Ryan Leaf can be happy. It must be almost impossible for the man to watch this super bowl. Just think about how he feels. As a Husky, if Ryan is reading this by remote chance, sire - we all hope you do well.

You gave your school )WSU) their beats season ever, and I'll never forget watching you play. Life throws all of us 'curve balls - myself included with serious medical ailments for my daughter with no cure'...

You can be a great person regardless of how the NFL worked out. I sincerely hope you find your path in life (and I'm not some liberal 'do-ggoder' idealist child...). I'm a realist. Enjoy the 2nd half of your life sir, but always remember ... the UW Huskies will alwsy be Apple Cup Favourites!


Best of luck!

usamnt
usamnt

@Hoggy Some people can live with 4 years and $31.5 million in a place they love to live and work compared to 6 years and $48 million in a place they won't be happy and potential perform worse because of it. In Leaf's case - he was obviously of low character and would fail wherever he went. Pitty.

usamnt
usamnt

@HoggyUmm...sounds perfectly legitimate to me. Re-cast this as an actor ~ No, I don't want to do a blockbuster movie for a guaranteed $20 million, I want to do an art film from a boutique studio that won't require me to do the dog and pony show of promotion. The agent's job is to inform his client of the pros and cons of his decision, then execute once the decision is made.

bhayes420
bhayes420

@David G I don't know how old you are, but I remember this like it was  yesterday.  There was a LOT of speculation about who they would take.  Most scouts had Leaf higher than Manning.  I know that's crazy, but it's true.  The Colts absolutely considered Leaf.  They got lucky and made the right pick.  The Chargers made an unlucky pick.  The draft literally is a crap shoot.

bhayes420
bhayes420

@TruthTeller Well, Polian sort of confirmed it when he said Leaf did miss the meeting.  

AF Whigs
AF Whigs

@Nine Vegetable:  Exactly.  The draft is a crap shoot.  If organizations and scouts spend all this time and energy evaluating prospects and they actually had the ability to predict success at the next level, they'd do it more often.  How many #1 picks are actually successful and have long careers - especially at QB?  


And then we get the guys who are successful but were drafted late.  So, Nine, I feel the same way anytime the talking heads say a guy is too small, not tall enough, not fast enough, etc.  It's more than that and they know it, but there's no way to accurately predict who will do well in the NFL.

DannyLopez
DannyLopez

@ianlinross John Elway also had a contract to play with the New York Yankees. If Baltimore would have drafted him, then he would have been more than happy to play Major League Baseball instead. Leaf didn't have that advantage. 


The more appropriate comparison would have been when Eli Manning refused to go to San Diego, and the Chargers drafted Phillip Rivers instead.

David2
David2

@ianlinross Well, the Colts would probably still have taken him, and as a result, the Chargers would have selected Manning.  Yes, Leaf could then have forced a trade somewhere else, but San Diego would likely be out of the picture, especially if the Colts tried to convince him to stay and the deal didn't occur immediately after the draft.  Leaf would also have little control over which team was the other side of the trade.

j7apple
j7apple

@hans k  Right on..They all said Russell Wilson was to short to play in the NFL .....lol  Experts...hahahaha

ShawnB
ShawnB

@ChadCollinsDifferent kind of bust.  RG3 was not drafted as a "can't miss prospect".  I don't think people realize how big a deal Leaf was when he was drafted because it happened so long ago.

AustinRoth
AustinRoth

@doublejtrain68I would put LaMarcus first, and not just because of the financial aspect of his contract (which in the end you have to blame Davis for).


Despite the fact that Leaf failed so spectacularly, he did try (for a while) to be a real NFL QB.


JaMarcus got his money, then basically did nothing while waiting to be cut. He never really wanted to play in the NFL, he just wanted the cash.

ChadCollins
ChadCollins

@doublejtrain68Leaf actually had a few decent games that I can remember.  I might give it to Russel as the worst ever.  I saw him play in the NFL, it was putrid

E
E

@bhayes420 @TruthTeller Yeah, but at the same time, Polian along with Mora had been saying well before this tidbit came out that they'd been leaning towards Manning before the one-on-one interviews anyway. For Mora, Arians, and the rest of the coaching staff, they said it was after they spent days studying tape on both quarterbacks. For Polian, it had been after a private workout. 


That doesn't totally refute what Steinberg said. In fairness, Polian also noted that Leaf's throws weren't as strong as he expected, whereas Manning's were way stronger; that leaves the door open to the private workout being the start of any supposed "tanking" on Leaf's part. But against Steinberg's claims is years of coaching staff and General Manager statements found in old interviews where they say they studied as much as they could on the two QBs and were already leaning in one direction by the time those interviews came around.


Who knows? It's entirely possible that the Colts front office made up its mind, but Leaf and Steinberg didn't know and worked to tank anyway. That's not impossible. 

ShawnB
ShawnB

@j7apple@hans k Let's not put Wilson in the hall of fame.  He's had a couple good games and lot of mediocre games.  At this point he's Rex Grossman without the interceptions - which makes him Trent Dilfer.  But hey, I'd give you Andy Dalton for him in a minute ;)

dash2k8
dash2k8

@j7apple @hans k Well, if Wilson ended up in a different system, say, Dolphins or Bucs, I wonder if he'd enjoy the same success? Would we be saying, "Yeah, he was too short, the scouts were right?"

duckfan59
duckfan59

@Nine Vegetable@ChadCollinsI agree. He's had one great year and one not-so-great year and a lot of that is due to injuries, both his and teammates. Let's not rush to judgement just yet.

RobertSmith
RobertSmith

@ShawnB @ChadCollins  Right.  He wasn't "can't miss" ... that's why the DCs gave up their first-round (sixth overall) and second-round picks plus first-round picks in 2013 and 2014 to move up four spots in the draft.  Yeah, you always trade away two first round picks and a second rounder  to move up four spots and take a "maybe" candidate.

pirate
pirate

@doublejtrain68  Oh, and what his name, the lineman the Packers took. Mandrich? He's No. 3, then Akili.

duckfan59
duckfan59

@ShawnB@j7apple@hans kYou're right about the not in hall of fame yet argument but WAY OFF when you compare him to Grossman and Dilfer.

He's lost one home game in two years. He's putting up TDs and QB rating numbers in his first two seasons that few others have. His team has made the playoffs in each of his first two seasons.
It's all about winning, right? He's 24-8 in his first two regular seasons and 3-1 in the playoffs.
So, yeah, not hall of fame yet but definitely taking the right steps in that direction..

Rickapolis
Rickapolis

@AF Whigs  Remember when Johnny Unitas was inducted into the Hall of Fame he brought along his front line and had them sit right in front of him? He said, 'Don't ever forget that the only reason I am here is because of them. I never have'.

AF Whigs
AF Whigs

@dash2k8@j7apple@hans k:  I would also add - how many QBs in the past have been taken in the 1st round by terrible teams with no O-line, then get thrown into the fray from the start because they got a fat rookie contract, and were then eaten alive by the defenses of better teams?  Is that really a test of whether you're an NFL QB - getting pounded into the turf every time you drop back?


How many of those guys could've been successful to a greater degree if they'd had the chance that Aaron Rogers did?  Impossible to say, but I'll bet they would've been more successful than they were.

XeronTafford
XeronTafford

@dash2k8 Seattle changed their system when Wilson beat out Matt Flynn (a more classic dropback passer) for the starter's job.  Flynn had been signed for big bucks, no way he was running the option--the Seahawks added Wilson's talents to their run-based attack.

Hard to say if Dolphins or Bucs would have utilized Wilson in the same way, with so much poor coaching in the league, it seems likely they would have blown it.  But you look at Wilson's past, at every stop, the coaches rave and predict great things.

j7apple
j7apple

@dash2k8 @j7apple @hans k   I suppose you could say that about any QB...Would Peyton Manning be the Peyton we know if he played for the same teams mentioned?


I think good QB's rise to the occasion and elevate the play of team mates around them. 


I don't know how good Wilson would have been on either of those other teams but what I do know is the Hawks had 4 straight losing seasons until Wilson arrived.

pcwhite2
pcwhite2

@Rickapolis @Nine Vegetable @ChadCollins 


Of course he will accept coaching - he did at Baylor and it got him a Heisman.


RGIII is a highly intelligent young man.  He quickly discerned what many more "experienced" NFL manager types and fans didn't understand: that Mike Shanahan is a TERRIBLE head coach.  He won two SB rings because he had Elway and Terrel Davis.  


RGIII will blossom under Jay Gruden (if he is a good coach).  I pray we never see Shanahan in the league again.

gyffesme
gyffesme

@RobertSmith@ShawnB@ChadCollinsJust because the DCs gave up a boatload of picks doesn't mean it was a wise or universally regarded decision. When has Snyder made a smart decision in his, what, 16 years of ownership?

AF Whigs
AF Whigs

@Nine Vegetable@ChadCollins@doublejtrain68:  Also, I remember a lot of pundits saying that Leaf was the better prospect before the draft.  Over and over.  So he had really high expectations, plus we now have the benefit of contrasting his flameout with Manning's career, so it's an even bigger bust, really.  


What's sad about Leaf, though, is that he was coaching in college and seemed to have found his peace, but obviously that wasn't the case.  The guy had talent and just threw it away.  Same with Russell.