The Peyton Manning/Ryan Leaf Debate: What Could Have Been

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The Peyton Manning/Ryan Leaf Debate: What Could Have Been

There is no doubt that Peyton Manning is a dominant force in the NFL. In fact many fans would argue that Manning is the reason for the meteoric rise of the Colts.  I often wonder how different the 2010 Super Bowl would be had history been just a little different.

Like most NFL drafts, the 1998 draft was surrounded by a great controversy: Who would the Colts pick with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft?

Indianapolis knew they needed to take a quarterback after the departure of Jim Harbaugh.  The San Diego Chargers were right behind the Colts in the draft order and they too were set on selecting a quarterback.  Lucky for both of these teams, two quarterbacks were clearly the class of the draft.

Manning and Ryan Leaf both put up outstanding numbers in their final years in the NCAA.  The order in which these two were supposed to be drafted depended on whose draft board you looked at, but the consensus was that neither would still be available after the second pick.

The personalities of the two couldn't be any different.  Leaf was basically an overgrown, petulant child who believed the world was his to take.  Manning, on the other hand, was more grounded and intelligent.  The personality differences in these two quarterbacks persuaded the Colts to go with Manning.

The question that I pose is, what would have happened to the NFL landscape had the Colts ignored their intuition and went ahead and drafted Leaf?

Dealing with hypotheticals is difficult and subject to wild deviations, but I will try to follow this one with as much logic as possible and assume all else being equal.

After the '98 draft, Leaf would be the quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts and Manning the quarterback of the San Diego Chargers.  This conclusion is cemented by the fact that the 1998 draft was extremely shallow in quarterback depth (the next two quarterbacks taken were Charlie Batch as 60th pick overall and Jonathan Quinn as the 86th).

Fast forward a couple of years. 

There is now little doubt that Manning would have been successful in just about any NFL situation.  Manning's football IQ is so high that even on a bad team like the Chargers (or Colts) he would have been successful. 

Leaf, on the other hand, struggled emotionally with the transition to the NFL. 

Leaf was destined to fail in the NFL because, as we now know, he was struggling with substance abuse.  Needless to say, his career probably would have unfolded the same way no matter where he was drafted.

Now we fast forward to the 2001 draft.  The 2000 season would have ended with a Pro Bowl season for Manning as a Charger.  At this point Leaf is all but washed up in the NFL and is struggling to clean up his life.  By the time the 2001 draft rolls around, the Colts are now in the market for a new quarterback. 

The top three quarterbacks in the 2001 draft were Michael Vick, Drew Brees, and Quincy Carter.  Michael Vick was targeted by the Falcons with the first pick so there was no chance for the Colts to pick him up, nor do I think the Colts wanted him.  This leaves the very real possibility that Drew Brees could have been drafted by the very team he plays against in this week's Super Bowl.

The repercussions of this hypothetical run very deep and relate to this year's Super Bowl.  Assuming both the Chargers and Colts went on to amass the same level of talent in this hypothetical as they did in reality, it is not a far stretch to see a Brees-led Colts team take on the Manning-led Chargers in this year's AFC Championship Game and many more in the foreseeable future.

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