The 1998 edition of the amatuer football draft featured a rarity in the NFL: two legititmate franchise quarterbacks in the same draft. The two gunslingers that had all NFL executives raving were Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf-both destined for eventual stardom and immmediate turnarounds of their franchises recent futility.
The first was 6’ 5″, Washington State junior Ryan Leaf. In last year’s Rose Bowl, Leaf was extremely impressive aganist the best defense in the country. Leaf put up 350 yards aganist a defensive unit that was the strongest college football had seen since the 1992 Alabama squad. Leaf picked apart Jim Hermann’s pro-style defense.
If not for his overated receiving core that dropped about seven passes, Leaf would have led his undermanned Cougars over the eventual National Champions. Leaf looked more polished and ready for the NFL than another Washington State alum that he had drawn heavy comparisons to-Drew Bledsoe, the No. 1 pick in the 1993 draft. Only in his fourth year, Bledsoe led his Patriots to the Super Bowl.
However, after the Rose Bowl, Leaf has looked like a totally different quarterback. In his first year with San Diego, he has really fallen on hard times. He is the NFL’s lowest-rated passer, throwing 13 interceptions and only two touchdowns. It seems the huge expectations have disrupted the rookie quarterback. Leaf has had problems with the local media, and he caused a disurbance at a recent party at Washington State. He has been benched in favor of the illustrious Craig Whelihan!
The benching Leaf received at this early point in his career could turn out to be positive in the long run. With all the different looks and varying blitz schemes, the pro game is a very difficult and slow learning process for a rookie quarterback. Look at Nashville quarterback Steve McNair, the second pick in the 1995 draft. Last year he was a reserve, this year, he has been solid, throwing 12 touchdowns aganist only 10 interceptions.
Many highly-touted quarterbacks have come into the league and been miserable failures. Sometimes the resurrection of these quarterbacks is a long and grueling struggle. Look at the journey of current New York Jets starting quarterback Vinny Testaverde. After winning the 1986 Heisman Trophy, Testaverde’s fortunes took a very sharp turn. He threw six interceptions against Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl and Miami lost the National Championship. The Brooklyn native was the first pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the 1987 draft.
In Tampa, Testaverde was a total bust. He threw a league record 35 interceptions in 1988 and was released by the Buccaneers in 1992. Finally, in his seventh pro season, he had a breakthrough year. For the first time in his career, playing with the Cleveland Browns, Testaverde threw more touchdowns than interceptions. In 1996, he had his best year with Baltimore. And more importantly he has led his team to an 8-4 record this year.
Leaf can take even more comfort in the progress of the previous Washington State star quarterback, the aforementioned Drew Bledsoe. In his first three pro seasons, Bledsoe threw for more interceptions than he did scoring strikes. In his fourth pro season, Bledsoe threw for 27 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. That year, the Patriots unexpectedly won the AFC and made their second appearance in the Super Bowl. This year, Bledsoe has shown the one quality critics said he lacked: toughness. Playing with a broken finger, Bledsoe has led the Partiots to two consective last-second victories.
The eventual No. 1 pick in the draft was Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning. Knowing that he was in the midst of a Heisman race, Manning made the sacrifice. He would often audible to a running play and cost himself stats; he eventually lost the award to Charles Woodson. In his four years in college, Manning set numerous conference passing records. During his senior campaign, Peyton won the Unitas and O’Brien awards and was First Team All-American.
Manning drew comparisons to former Cleveland quarterback Bernie Kosar. His intelligence and great savvy for the game made him the No. 1 pick in the draft. In his first season with the Indianapolis Colts, he has made steady improvement throughout the season. Despite throwing a league-leading 22 interceptions, Manning has made himself the leading candidate for Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Manning has established a rookie record by playing in nine consecutive games with a touchdown pass. Currently, he is second in yards in the AFC. He has also shown why he was the ultimate winner in college. In a recent game aganist the division-leading Jets, Manning led the Colts to a victory on the last drive of the game.
Making the adjustment from college to the pro ranks is extremely difficult. So Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf should not worry at this stage of their careers. They should remember that all of the best quarterbacks suffered failure before having success.