Somewhere in Denver, Peyton Manning is getting ready to play in his third Super Bowl. Elsewhere, in Montana State Prison, Ryan Leaf is incarcerated. Such were the eventual fates of the No. 1 and No. 2 overall picks in the 1998 NFL Draft.
Now, some sixteen years after the Indianapolis Colts made their selection, opting for the University of Tennessee phenom (Manning) over the rocket-armed kid from Washington State (Leaf) with the No. 1 overall pick, we are still talking about the ramifications of that draft.
Recently, former NFL super agent Leigh Stienberg wrote a new book that claims that when he was Ryan Leaf's agent back in 1998, both he, Leaf, and then-Chargers general manager Bobby Beathard manipulated the draft so that Leaf would fall to San Diego with the No. 2 overall pick. They did this because, astoundingly, the Colts and then-team president Bill Polian were leaning Leaf with the No. 1 overall pick.
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?
Steinberg's quotes about Colts owner Jim Irsay are especially interesting:
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.
Per Steinberg, the person within the Colts organization who needed to be won over to Leaf was head coach Jim Mora. Mora, who had coached in New Orleans - and had practically watched Peyton Manning grow up around the Saints due to the franchise's close association with Peyton's father, Archie - was very much in the Manning camp. A meeting was scheduled at the Scouting Combine in 1998 for Leaf to chat with Mora.
Steinberg writes that he instructed Leaf to skip that meeting. Beathard was reportedly in on this. By skipping the meeting, it would guarantee that the proud Mora would stand firm against drafting Leaf.
Leaf did skip the meeting. Mora went nuts as a result. The Colts drafted Manning No. 1 overall in April, the Chargers drafted Leaf No. 2, and the rest is history.
Of course, earlier today Bill Polian went on ESPN's Mike and Mike Show and denied that he and the team were leaning towards Leaf. It should be noted that Polian is now employed by ESPN as an NFL analyst. There's always been rumors in Indianapolis that Polian thought Leaf would make a better quarterback than Manning, and it's been Manning himself that, in indirect ways, has confirmed those rumors.
It's also worth noting that Beathard recently stated he didn't remember Steinberg's claim that he and the Chargers were in on the draft manipulation strategy.
It all makes for fascinating stuff, especially now that Manning has been released by the Colts, signed by Denver, and is on his way to his NFL record
sixth fifth league MVP award.*
*I sitll think Manning should have won the MVP in 2012.