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What If The Colts Took Ryan Leaf?

We all know the story. The Colts took Peyton Manning, and he sky-rocketed to legend status. The Chargers took Leaf, and he also sky-rocketed to legend status...just a different kind of legend. But what if it didn't go that way? What if the Colts took Leaf instead?

Jason Parkhurst-USA TODAY Sports

As some of you may know, I'm an Iowa State sports fan. Of course, this basketball season dealt me another one-and-done which I thought only the Colts were capable of. Apparently losing to a .500 team in the playoffs is something the teams I cheer for have to do.

Anyway, once I got over my March Sadness (although I still have my entire Final Four in one piece) I started thinking about what to write for this week's "What If."

Inspiration struck while I was on Twitter this morning. Today is Peyton Manning's 39th birthday, so this article will center around him.

What if the Colts drafted Ryan Leaf?

It's the one draft story we hear every year. Manning and Leaf went one and two in the draft, and had their careers go in opposite directions.

Manning is gearing up for another (I think his last) NFL season in which he is poised to break most all of the major career passing records.

Leaf played five years, for four teams, in the NFL. He was recently released from prison in December.

In hindsight, we've gotten a fairly good sense that Bill Polian and Jim Irsay had a good idea they knew Manning would be the pick.

But let's say they took Leaf instead.

Leaf would be headed to Indianapolis where he would have a (somewhat) stable coach in Jim Mora, and would have players such as Marshall Faulk and Marvin Harrison around him on offense. Keep in mind, though, that this Colts team was not very good.

With Manning, the offense finished ranked 12th in the league in yards. Manning also slung a career high 28 interceptions, still a rookie record.

With Leaf, the Chargers offense was ranked 24th in the league in yards. Leaf only played in 10 games, starting nine of those, and threw 15 interceptions to two touchdowns. Yet, Leaf would win three games as a starter, as did Manning.

Of course, it helps when the Chargers had the top ranked defense in yards allowed that season.

Plug Leaf into Indianapolis, and I can't foresee anything but a train wreck. The Colts defense was ranked 29th in the league, second worst. I can't imagine Leaf even winning three games with that defense.

And keep in mind, Manning's first win didn't come until Week 5, against the Chargers, whereas Leaf won his first two in San Diego.

So let's go a step further and say Mora benches Leaf. Let's face it, this probably would have happened.

The Colts back-up QB in 1998? Kelly Holcomb.

That's actually a better option than I thought the Colts had when I started writing this (because I definitely didn't remember who the back-up that year was).

So let's say the Colts finish 3-13 (or worse) in 1998 with Leaf. Odds are pretty good that Polian still opts to trade Faulk and draft Edgerrin James. I see no reason for that to change.

However, we'll assume that Leaf flames out in Indianapolis at the end of 2000, much like he did in San Diego.

This leaves the Colts with the top pick in the 2001 draft where Virginia Tech star Michael Vick awaits.

While, we'll never know for sure, I'm going to guess Polian moves down a bit, much like the Chargers did. Instead of taking Tomlinson though (remember the Colts have James) I'll have Polian bolstering the defense and grabbing Richard Seymour with the fifth pick.

Then, in the second round, Polian grabs a slightly under-sized quarterback who played his college ball just up I-65 in Lafayette: Drew Brees.

And, if you'll indulge my little fantasy world for a second, remember that the Colts moved way up in the second round in a trade with Dallas. I'm going to say that they still do this, but instead of going after a safety (like in real life), Polian targets a receiver.

The way the draft settled in 2001, it's very likely that the Colts end up with either Chad Johnson or Reggie Wayne. I like to think it would have been Wayne.

While it would have been a miserable few years with Leaf, and a bit after, I don't think many of us would have been too unhappy with an offense featuring Wayne, Harrison, James, and Brees.

I'd still rather have Manning though.

Speaking of Manning, I've left him out of this so far. You probably all assumed that he would go to the Chargers, make them a perennial contender, and San Diego would live happily ever after.

Not necessarily.

Remember, the Chargers had to move up to get Leaf in a trade with the Cardinals. Now, the Cardinals had themselves a QB in Jake Plummer, and they would make the playoffs the coming year, so they are still open to trading the pick.

To San Diego? Maybe not. I only say this because I'm sure all of you remember the 2004 off-season where Eli and Archie Manning said that Eli wouldn't play if taken by San Diego. What if Peyton did the same thing?

Say he did, what team in 1998 needs a QB, and had a top 10 pick to trade to the Cardinals? As much as I cringe to type this, the best bet (I think) would have been the team holding the seventh pick in the 1998 draft. The New Orleans Saints.

Imagine the media buzz, Peyton Manning would be playing for the same team that Archie played for. And even better, Mike Ditka would have been the coach. Could you imagine?

I think that's all I'm going to go into on Manning's side of things, because I've really messed up the NFL time-line in this piece.

I'm just happy that the Colts did the smart thing and took Manning over Leaf.