Ryan Leaf: #1 NFL Draft Bust


Synopsis: As a redshirt junior in 1997, Washington State quarterback Ryan Leaf won the Sammy Baugh Trophy as the most outstanding passer in the country. Helping his case, he led the nation in passing yards (3,968) and finished second in passing efficiency with a 158.7 rating. For as impressive as those numbers were, they seem even more impressive considering that Peyton Manning was a senior at Tennessee that year and trailed Leaf in both categories. In particular, Manning had 149 fewer yards on 67 more attempts and an efficiency rating that was 11 points lower. Returning the favor, Manning had more touchdowns (36 vs. 34) and won the Davey O’Brien Award as the most outstanding quarterback in the country. Given their success, it was no surprise when they went 1-2 in the 1998 draft. From that moment on, however, their paths diverged to the point of Manning becoming an all-time great and Leaf becoming an all-time bust. Of note, Leaf’s career totals of 3,700 yards with 14 touchdowns and 36 interceptions were horrendous. In addition, he had a 4-17 record as a starter. As if things couldn’t get worse, Leaf has been imprisoned for almost two years because of a drug-related crime. While certain players like JaMarcus Russell, Charles Rogers and Lawrence Phillips are all-time busts, Ryan Leaf tops them all as the worst of the worst.


Ryan Leaf was a heralded quarterback from Washington State whose career will always be evaluated in the rear-view mirror of the greatest regular-season quarterback in NFL history. If you recognize this sentence, you should, because I only had to change one hyphenated adjective in order to introduce the #1 Bust instead of the #7 Bust. In the 1979 Draft, Jack Thompson (and #7 Bust) was the 1st quarterback taken and 3rd overall pick while Joe Montana (the greatest post-season quarterback in NFL history) was the 4th quarterback taken and 82nd overall pick. Just like Thompson will be linked forever to Montana, Ryan Leaf will be linked forever to Peyton Manning, the greatest regular-season quarterback in NFL history.

Similar to the Cola Wars between Coke and Pepsi in the 1980s, the QB Wars between Manning and Leaf in the late 1990s focused on only two choices. Going into the 1998 NFL Draft, some scouts/analysts liked the strong arm and physical presence of Leaf while others preferred the strong fundamentals and decision-making of Manning. Some restaurants serve Coke while others serve Pepsi, but have you ever been to one that served RC or C&C? Of course not, because there are only two legitimate cola choices. Similarly, there were only two legitimate quarterback choices in 1998, and both were considered sure things.

The teams with the first three picks in the 1998 draft were the Indianapolis Colts, Arizona Cardinals and San Diego Chargers. Whereas the Colts and Chargers both needed a quarterback, the Cardinals had taken Jake Plummer with their 2nd round pick (#42 overall) in the prior draft. Plummer started the 1997 season third on the depth chart but moved ahead of both Kent Graham and Stoney Case (don’t worry, I don’t remember him either) during the season. Even though the Cardinals didn’t intend to take a quarterback, the Chargers were willing to give up a lot to assure that they would get Manning or Leaf. Specifically, they gave up two 1st round picks, a 2nd round pick, punt returner/wide receiver Eric Metcalf (a 3x Pro-Bowl returner who led the league with three punt returns for touchdowns in 1997), and linebacker/throw-in Patrick Sapp. Clearly, the Chargers gave up a lot for the ability to pick second, but they believed they were getting a franchise-caliber player for years to come.

Based on hindsight, the idea that anyone might have considered Leaf a better prospect than Manning seems comical. However, Leaf really was an accomplished college quarterback who not only had impressive individual stats but also helped turn around a losing team. As a redshirt freshman for the Washington State Cougars in 1995, Leaf saw limited time and started only one game for a team that went 3-8 and finished next to last in the Pac 10. In that game, which pitted WSU against its rival and the 22nd ranked Washington Huskies, Leaf threw for almost 300 yards and narrowly missed completing the upset in a 33-30 loss. Leaf started all eleven games during his sophomore season, which ended with a 5-6 record and a 2-game improvement over the prior season. The turnaround was complete by Leaf’s junior year as he led the Cougars to a 10-2 record and a Rose Bowl appearance as a co-Champion of the Pac 10.

The team’s success in 1997 was due in large part to Leaf’s outstanding season during which he led the NCAA in passing yards, ranked 2nd in passing efficiency, and finished 4th in passing touchdowns. Based on his stellar performance, Leaf received the Sammy Baugh Trophy (Most Outstanding Passer) and finished 3rd in the Heisman voting. At the same time, Manning had an equally impressive 1997 season during which he finished 3rd in passing touchdowns and 4th in yards. In addition, he won the Davey O’Brien Award (Most Outstanding QB) and Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award (Most Outstanding Senior QB), and finished 2nd in the Heisman voting (just ahead of Leaf).  As the following table shows, Manning and Leaf had very similar statistics in 1996 and 1997.

                                Ryan Leaf  – College Stats (Washington State)                                  


Comp Att Comp % Passing Yards TDs INTs

Efficiency Rating




52 97 53.6 654 4 1 121.8
1996 194 373 52.0 2,811 21 12



227 410 55.4 3,968 34 11 158.7
Totals 473 880 53.8 7,433 59 24


Peyton Manning – College Stats (Tennessee)


Comp Att Comp % Passing Yards TDs INTs Efficiency Rating
1994 89 144 61.8 1,141 11 6



244 380 64.2 2,954 22 4 146.5
1996 243 380 63.9 3,287 20 12



287 477 60.2 3,819 36 11 147.7
Totals 863 1,381 62.5 11,201 89 33



Manning and Leaf both graduated high school in 1994, but Leaf redshirted as a freshman so Manning got a head start.  The difference in their career totals may seem meaningful but it can be explained by the extra year of eligibility that Leaf had when declaring for the draft as a junior. Given their comparable 1997 seasons, Leaf essentially made up the staggered start that Manning had by not redshirting.

In what solidified Bill Polian’s reputation as a great evaluator of football talent (and assured him a career on ESPN after his football days were done), the Colts’ GM chose Manning as the 1st overall pick in the 1998 Draft. As a result, San Diego took Leaf with the 2nd overall pick. In recent years, Leigh Steinberg (Leaf’s agent) contends that Leaf intentionally sabotaged his chances to go to the Colts by skipping a planned meeting with Colts’ head coach Jim “Playoffs” Mora during the combine.


Mora’s “Playoffs” soundbite sits alongside Iverson’s “Practice” soundbite in the press conference Hall of Fame

Polian confirmed that Leaf skipped the meeting but disputed Steinberg’s account that it was orchestrated in an effort to manipulate the selection. As someone who routinely skipped meetings or practice without permission or a valid excuse, Leaf often was fined by the Chargers during his short stint with the team. He likely thought his time was too important, but perhaps Steinberg can devise an ulterior motive for Leaf’s absences. Who do you believe – Bill Polian (a well-respected football executive) or Leigh Steinberg (an agent who’s more like Jay Sugar than Jerry McGuire)? In case you hesitated, you should believe Polian “every day of the week and twice on Sundays” (to reference another Tom Cruise movie).

Given Leaf’s college accomplishments, Polian may have been more lucky than good. While half of the “experts” would have picked Manning over Leaf, I don’t know of any who predicted that Leaf would be mediocre, much less bad. Perhaps the most inaccurate assessment of Leaf was provided by none other than Dr. Kiper, who said, “I think Ryan Leaf is more mature than Drew Bledsoe, he’s very much a grown up 21-year-old.”  In addition, Kiper mentioned that Leaf’s attitude would provide a mental advantage over Manning. If anything, Leaf’s attitude was a disadvantage and his immaturity led directly to his downfall.

Leaf didn’t take long to prove Kiper wrong. In fact, it took only three regular season games for Leaf to show us what was hidden below the surface. In week three of the 1998 regular season, Manning’s Colts lost to the New York Jets by the score of 44-6. Manning’s line of 20-44 for 193 yards with zero touchdowns and two interceptions wasn’t worthy of a highlight reel, but it still was a lot better than Leaf’s. The Chargers lost to the Kansas City Chiefs by the score of 23-6, but Leaf lost the battle of the rookie QBs with a line of 1-15 for four yards with two interceptions and three lost fumbles. Leaf’s stats are underscored by the fact that his sole completion happened on the first play of the game.

After the game, Leaf had a run-in with a cameraman that was reported in a local newspaper the next day. In what was caught on tape and replayed many times since then, Leaf berated the reporter and screamed, “Just F—ing don’t talk to me, all right! Knock it off!”


Ryan Leaf losing it

The first two words are omitted from the following clip, but the rest of it can be heard. The incident might have been blown off as a bad moment for a rookie quarterback and forgotten a long time ago, but it proved to be the rule and not the exception.

If you believe that any further decline in Leaf’s value was inconceivable, you might want to think again. As the following clip shows, things that seem inconceivable (like the Dread Pirate Roberts catching up to Andre the Giant) often aren’t.


Hey, it’s Saul (from Homeland, not Breaking Bad)!


In his 4th game that year, Leaf was 15-34 for 193 yards and zero touchdowns, but threw a whopping four interceptions. Unable to avoid turnovers, he was benched for Craig Whelihan, who was a 26-year old rookie who lasted only two years in the league as Leaf’s back-up. I believe Whelihan, with his 2-12 career record and 52.4 passer rating, only existed to make San Diego fans appreciate Leaf. Unfortunately, the ploy didn’t work because Leaf was even worse.

Leaf’s career highlight might have been a Week 5 match-up against Manning, the other “guaranteed” superstar from the 1998 draft. In that game, both quarterbacks went 12-23, but Leaf threw for 160 yards versus 137 yards for Manning. Additionally, they both threw one interception, but Manning threw one touchdown versus zero for Leaf.  The Colts won 17-12, but Leaf engaged in a statistic dead heat with Manning. You know it’s bad when a moral victory becomes a career highlight.

In Week 10 (San Diego’s 9th game), Leaf lost his starting job by going 4-15 for 26 yards with no touchdowns and one interception. Leaf finished the season with two touchdowns, 15 interceptions and a passer rating of 39.0. Before moving on, a passer rating that low needs to be highlighted. Just like a person who takes the SAT gets a score of 200 (for one section) just for filling in his or her name, a quarterback gets a rating of 39.4 just for throwing an incomplete pass and not an interception.  Finding a quarterback with a rating of 39 is like finding someone who got a 190 on one section of the SAT.  In addition to Leaf’s abysmally low passer rating, he had a 3-6 record as a starter, which amounted to 75% of his career victories (i.e. he won one more game). Over the remaining three years of his career (including one full season lost to a shoulder injury), Leaf went 1-11 as a starter with 12 touchdowns and 21 interceptions.  Over that time, he increased his passer rating to 50.0, which still was pathetic.

In case you need to see how much Leaf’s career numbers differ from Manning’s, the following table (updated after 2015 season) says it all:



Draft (Pick) Record Yards TD INT Passer Rating


Ryan Leaf

1998 (#2) 4-17 3,666 14 36 50.0 1
Peyton Manning 1998 (#1) 186-79 71,940 539 251 96.5



* WAV (weighted average value) is a proprietary statistic calculated by pro-football-reference.com in order to evaluate players with one all-encompassing number. As a point of reference, a WAV of 100 indicates a likely Hall of Famer. Manning’s WAV of 172 is the highest in NFL history.


Arguably, Manning is still the most productive quarterback in the NFL so his career totals will only continue to grow. He already holds the career record for passing touchdowns, and should break the career records for passing yards and victories sometime in 2015. At that point, it will be hard to imagine anyone arguing that he’s not the greatest regular-season quarterback in history. If there’s still any doubt, his Weighted Average Value (WAV) of 172 is the highest one ever recorded. Manning has been elected to 12 Pro Bowls and has won five regular-season MVP awards. In addition, he has been to three Super Bowls and has won the Super Bowl MVP award once. If he somehow wins a couple more Super Bowls, he most certainly will be on the Mount Rushmore of NFL Greats.

In contrast, Leaf never received any positive recognition for his professional career. Thinking back to 1998, who would have known that the choice between Manning and Leaf would be more like a Ketchup War than a Cola War. In the market for ketchup, Heinz is the clear leader, Hunt’s is a distant second, Del Monte is a more distant third, and then private label brands fill in the rest. With respect to quarterbacks from the 1998 Draft, Peyton Manning was Heinz, Matt Hasselbeck was Hunt’s, Brian Griese was Del Monte, Charlie Batch was Kirkland, and Ryan Leaf was some generic catsup that you wouldn’t even want to try.

As a graduate business school student in the spring of 1998, I took a class called Risky Decisions. My group project for that class involved an evaluation of Manning’s decision to stay in college even though he likely would have been the 1st overall pick after his junior year. I don’t have the paper anymore (it was stored on a 3 1/4″ disk so it would be as practical as an 8-track cassette), but I remember Manning admitted that he based his decision on a gut feeling. Whereas he relied on emotion more than rational thinking, we concluded that he made the best decision for his personal development and professional career. Apparently, his gut led him to the right decision

When I started compiling this list of Top 10 NFL Draft Busts, my gut told me that Leaf would be the #1 Bust. I knew he had pathetic numbers, but I didn’t realize how bad they were. At the same time, I knew he earned bonus points for being overshadowed by one of the NFL’s all-time greats (Manning) and for being imprisoned for drug-related crimes. Of note, Leaf has been in prison for almost two years after pleading guilty to felony burglary for breaking into someone’s home and stealing prescription drugs.

Since all of the Top 10 Busts had pathetic NFL careers, I resorted to additional information (i.e. bonus points) to help with the ranking. With respect to the quarterbacks in the countdown, the following table summarizes their career stats as well as the additional information which affected their specific ranking.


Bust Rank

Player Draft Pick Record Passing Yards TDs INTs Passer Rating

Bonus Points


David Klingler #6 4-20 3,994 16 22


Beaten out by 6th round pick Jeff Blake


Heath Shuler #3 8-14 3,691 15 33


Beaten out by 7th round pick Gus Frerotte


Jack Thompson #3 4-17 5,315 33 45


Drafted ahead of Joe Montana


Akili Smith #3 3-14 2,212 5 13


Bengals could have received 9 picks from Saints to enable selection of Ricky Williams


JaMarcus Russell #1 7-18 4,083 18 23


#1 overall pick – taken before Calvin Johnson and Adrian Peterson


Art Schlichter #4 0-6 1,006 3 11


Suspended for gambling on NFL games. Serving 10-year sentence for gambling-related crimes


Ryan Leaf #2 4-17 3,666 14 36


Considered toss-up pick with Peyton Manning. Currently in prison for drug-related crimes.


Based purely on the numbers, the worst quarterback was Schlichter while Smith and Leaf were close behind in a tie for second. Then again, Schlichter only started six games so his sample size is low compared to the others. When factoring in draft position (i.e. Schlichter went #4, Smith went #3, and Leaf went #2) as well as the additional information, Ryan Leaf is the cream not only of the crop but also that rises to the top. As such, he is the worthy #1 NFL Draft Bust.