If the Indianapolis Colts Took Ryan Leaf in the 1998 NFL Draft

Todd FlemingAnalyst IJune 6, 2009

16 Dec 2001: Quarterback Ryan Leaf #16 of the Dallas Cowboys looks to throw the ball on the sidelines against the Seattle Seahawks during the NFL game at Husky Stadium in Seattle, Washington.  The Seahawks defeated the Cowboys 29-3.  Mandatory Credit:  Otto Greule/Getty Images

The conventional wisdom is that the Indianapolis Colts made the right call in 1998 when they drafted Peyton Manning with the first overall pick.  But, conventional wisdom is usually wrong.  Okay, it is actually usually right.  It is, at least, sometimes wrong. 

Since 1998, the Colts have won one Super Bowl.  Not bad....not bad at all, considering there are 32 teams in the league.  But, since that time, the Patriots have been to four Super Bowls, winning three, while frequently treating Manning like a rag doll along the way—better.

The Steelers have won two Super Bowls, capturing their first Super Bowl behind a second-year quarterback who significantly outplayed the great Manning in the biggest playoff upset that year—also better.   

Incidentally, the Steelers, apparently stealing a page from the Patriots' playbook, also treated Manning like a rag doll in that game, enough so that he was...shall we say...less than pleased with his offensive line.

So, were the Colts really better off drafting Manning in 1998?  Consider this alternate scenario.  Cue the Twilight Zone music.

"With the first pick in the 1998 draft, the Indianapolis Colts select quarterback Ryan Leaf, Washington State University."

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The Colts' fans go wild.  All they can talk about is Leaf's incredible upside and unparalleled physical gifts.  The Chargers are doomed with the more conventional Peyton Manning.  

Colts' fans can't wait to see the two go head-to-head on the field so they can laugh at the Chargers when Leaf shows up their Manning chump. 

Ryan Leaf goes on to win two Super Bowls.  Okay...just kidding.  That can't happen, even in a satire piece.

Actually, for the Colts, things turn really ugly.  The Colts turn into the league punchline, winning all of eight games over the next three years behind Mr. Upside.  Even Matt Millen and his Detroit Lions are laughing at them.  

That is all they can take of the great Ryan Leaf, finally cutting ties.

They start building their talent base, repeatedly drafting near the top of each round as they struggle to find a quarterback.

All of the usual suspects take a turn playing behind center for the Colts.  Mark Rypien, Gus Frerotte, and Jeff Blake each get a shot.  Finally, they trot out Vinny Testaverde.  None have much success over the next few years.

The Colts are hesitant to draft another highly-rated signal caller after the Leaf debacle, so they use their high draft picks to build an excellent defense.

They also acquire some great offensive weapons in the draft to go along with their great defense, although nobody can get the ball into their hands. 

Meanwhile, Peyton Manning puts up huge numbers for the Chargers, but can't quite put it together in the playoffs.  The divergence between his regular season stats and playoff meltdowns is a real puzzler.

Chargers' fans insist that playoff wins don't mean much.  It is all about the stats. 

Everyone is talking about how stupid the Colts were for taking Leaf when they could have had a Manning. 

Everyone knows that you have to draft a Manning with the first pick if one is available.  It is one of those unwritten laws of the universe.

Which brings us to 2004.  There are three top-rated quarterbacks on the board and the Colts have the seventh overall pick.  They see the draft as a chance for redemption. 

They can finally get their man...ning.  However, the Oakland Raiders have the first pick and insist they are going to take Eli, the twinkle of the Colts' eye. 

But, there is a wrinkle.  Eli, getting sage advice from some fellow named Archie, famous for quarterbacking a team that was so good its fans wore bags over their heads, says he will never play for the Raiders.

The Colts offer the Oakland Raiders a host of picks to move up to the top spot, but Al Davis stands firm.  Despite Eli's no-play threat, the Raiders draft Eli and, in the big surprise of the day, trade him to the Giants for Phillip Rivers and a blazing fast wide receiver who can't catch to be named later.

The Colts are horrified and have to settle on their third choice, taking Ben Roethlisberger out of the no-name University of Miami, Ohio with the sixth pick.

Their plan is to bring him along slowly while Vinny continues to run the show for a couple years.  Then, Vinny goes down to injury in the second game of the year. 

Big Ben takes the field and wins his next fourteen starts, shattering all conventional wisdom on what a rookie quarterback can accomplish.  The guy doesn't seem to know how to lose. 

He finally loses in the AFC Championship Game after one of the most magical rookie seasons in history.

The next season, he leads the Colts to the Super Bowl title after knocking off the heavily favored Chargers, led by Peyton Manning, in the divisional round.  

He keeps his promise to Edgerrin James that if he would just stay in Indianapolis for one more year, he'll get him his Super Bowl ring.  The Edge embraces Big Ben as they celebrate in Detroit.     

A couple of years later, Big Ben leads the Colts to another Super Bowl title, staging the most dramatic final drive in the history of the Super Bowl.  Amazingly and inexplicably, plenty of people don't want to give him any credit for it.  The Super Bowl MVP goes to his favorite target on that final drive, Anthony Gonzalez. 

That all so reliable conventional wisdom says that it was the ferocious Colts' defense that won those titles.  Big Ben was just a manager, a mere caretaker.  The rest of the team carried him on its back.

Colts' fans will hear none of it.  They know that they have a special quarterback in Big Ben, and they have two Lombardi trophies in his first five years to show for it. 

The guy has an almost mystical quality about him, and nobody can forget "the tackle," when he backpedaled and made a spectacular diving desperation tackle on Shawn Merriman after the Edge inexplicably fumbled while going into the end zone, trying to ice the playoff game against Peyton Manning's Chargers.

The play ranks right near the top of the all-time best plays in Colts' franchise history, although it did get pushed aside by "The Drive" in the latest Super Bowl win.

In the interim, Peyton Manning finally gets his first Super Bowl ring in 2006, leading the Chargers over the Bears in a sleeper of a Super Bowl.

The icing on the cake is that their quarterback is only 27 years old, only now entering the most productive years for an NFL quarterback. 

The sky is the limit in the years ahead for the Colts with the improvisational Big Ben behind center, the guy that Terrell Suggs warned teams not to rush because he is just too good in pressure situations.

So, there you have it.  In some alternate universe, the Colts drafted Ryan Leaf and won two Super Bowls over the next decade. 

The moral of this story?  Don't draft a Manning when you can draft a Leaf, especially when you might land a Big Ben six years later.