The Countdown To Kickoff series continues with 16 days remaining until Week 1. Today’s honoree is… No. 16, Ryan Leaf.
Ryan Flipping Leaf???
You must be wondering why–Ryan Leaf never played for the Colts.
Indeed he didn’t, but in sports world where a franchise’s trajectory can be dramatically influenced with a good or bad No. 1 pick, let’s fantasize about the direction the Indianapolis Colts would have taken had they selected Leaf instead of Peyton Manning with the top pick in 1998.
“With the first pick in the 1998 NFL Draft, the Indianapolis Colts select quarterback Ryan Leaf, Washington State University…”
The next day, Leaf missed his introductory press conference after mistakingly flying out to Arizona, where he and a couple of his buddies reportedly did $10,000 worth of damage to his hotel room.
“We believe the Colts have turned over a new Leaf!” Bill Polian told the packed news conference in Leaf’s absence. “Our days of revolving-door quarterbacks are over. Finally, we have a foundation in place. As soon as we can find him, we’ll bring him in.”
Leaf struggled mightily his first year, throwing only two touchdowns with 15 interceptions. The Colts finished 5-11–a far cry from the playoffs, which one reporter made the mistake of asking an infuriated coach Jim Mora about after one loss.
“Playoffs??? Don’t talk about playoffs! You kidding me?! Playoffs?!?! I just hope we can win a game!”
Leaf was becoming agitated as well. In an infamous locker-room incident caught on camera, the immensely immature top pick broke down and screamed, “Just f—ing don’t talk to me, all right?! Knock it off!”
Leaf had to be restrained by teammates, and there were serious doubts about whether or not he was worth trading up for two future first-round picks, a second-rounder, and Marvin Harrison.
“He’ll grow into the position,” Polian assured reporters.
Unfortunately, Leaf’s second year in Indianapolis was even worse as he didn’t play a single down with a lingering wrist injury. The misery for Indy reached a point where Leaf fought with reporters, heckling fans and even team management. During his suspension for conduct detrimental to the team, he was seen playing flag football.
In 2000, the Leaf Experiment hit rock-bottom as the Colts finished 1-15. Leaf’s career numbers were 6-26 with 13 touchdowns, 33 interceptions and a 48.8 quarterback rating.
Leaf skipped the Colts’ mini-camp in favor of his honeymoon in 2001, and that’s when Bill Polian finally pulled the plug on the disgruntled Leaf by saying, “Good riddance!”
Leaf’s release also happened to be his last move as team president, as he was fired by team owner Jim Irsay along with the entire coaching staff, including Mora. Attendance, already dismal for years, dropped to a point where relocation to Los Angeles was inevitable.
Looking to start a new era on the right note, the Colts made a deal they believed, this time, would change the franchise’s fortunes.
At the first news conference in L.A., Irsay established himself memorably.
“He had his problems in Cincinnati, but this is now the proud beginning of the Akili Smith Era!”
Meanwhile, down the road on I-5, Manning was quickly developing into the best quarterback of his generation. Bobby Beathard and Mike Riley had been named Executive of the Year and Coach of the Year, respectively.
Better yet, the Manning-led Chargers became the first team to ever play a Super Bowl on its home turf.
It sure is interesting to always wonder what would’ve happened had the Colts chosen Leaf instead of Manning in real life. (Even more so, how would have Ricky Williams fared in Naptown instead of Edgerrin James?)
While Leaf never played a snap for the Colts–thankfully–the player who would’ve worn No. 16 was an outstanding honoree for today’s Countdown To Kickoff segment.
Countdown To Kickoff Archive
Aug 21: Peyton Manning
Aug 22: Austin Collie
Aug 23: Ryan Leaf
Aug 24: LaVon Brazill
Aug 26: T.Y. Hilton
Aug 27: Andrew Luck
Aug 28: Donnie Avery
Aug 31: Matt Hasselbeck
Sept 1: Curtis Painter
Sept 2: Dan Orlovsky
Sept 3: Kerry Collins
Sept 4: Adam Vinatieri
Sept 5: Matt Stover
Sept 7: Pat McAfee