What If the Colts had Selected Ryan Leaf?

Today’s article is the first in a (hopefully) recurring series, “What if…”. Suggested by a reader, today I’ll be investigating what would have happened if the Colts had drafted Ryan Leaf instead of Peyton Manning.  What if… is brought to you by Blue Blood: Tales of Glory of the Indianapolis Colts.  Buying a copy of Blue Blood is still the best way to support 18to88.com.

In 1998, Bill Polian made the toughest, best call of his career: he selected Peyton Manning and not Ryan Leaf to be the first overall pick in the draft.  Polian’s first decision worked out marvelously.

Games Comp Att Yards YPA TD Rating
Manning 208 4682 7210 54,828 7.6 399 94.9
Leaf 25 317 655 3,666 5.6 14 50.0

So, yeah.  Peyton’s been better. No news flash there.  But what would have happened if Polian had blown the pick and selected Leaf?  In playing this game, I’ve set up the following rules:

1. The fundamental character of the people involved can’t change.  In other words, in the bizarro world of 16to88, Ryan Leaf doesn’t become a nice guy just because the Colts took him.

2. Draft hindsight doesn’t apply.  Any guesses about future picks have to be based on available knowledge at the time.

So, in our nightmares, Ryan Leaf became a Colt and Peyton Manning a Charger.  The first thing that changes is the 1998 season.  Leaf was injury riddled, in ‘leading’ the Chargers to a 3-6 record, though if you look at his numbers in the Chargers’ wins, they were bad.  Considering that one of the Colts’ victories in ’98 was over San Diego, it’s safe to say that the Colts do no better than 2-14 (one game worse than the 3-13 they actually played).  By the end of the ’98 season, Manning was playing good football (20-13 TD/INT rate over final 10 games). 

1998: There are two immediate results from the Colts taking Leaf.

First: Indy winds up with the second overall pick in the 1999 draft, leap frogging the other 3-13 teams (though not the expansion Browns).

Second: Marshall Faulk almost certainly does not put up the massive numbers he did in 1998.  Faulk’s 1998 season was one of the great seasons in Colts’ history. The problem is that Manning’s development helped Faulk put up some of those numbers.  Without the massive season, he would not have had nearly the leverage he did in reality.  Coming off a mediocre season in which the team went 2-14 with Ryan Leaf (whose injuries and attitude have already begun to worry the Indy front office), Faulk doesn’t demand a new deal before training camp opens.

Consequences:

Because Faulk doesn’t demand a new deal, he doesn’t get traded before the 1999 draft.  Instead, the Colts take the big package deal with the Saints who offered the farm to draft Ricky Williams.  The Colts deal the #2 pick in exchange for the Saints 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th round picks in the 1999 draft, as well as the Saints 1st and 3rd round picks in 2000.  The St. Louis Rams wind up selecting Edgerrin James in the first round and go on to win the Super Bowl. The Colts wind up with Torry Holt as a compliment to Marvin Harrison and to give Leaf ‘more weapons’.

1999: Leaf’s career completely implodes as we all learn the Colts have made a terrible mistake.  He misses the entire 1999 season with an injury. The only saving grace is that the Colts bring back Jim Harbaugh to be the backup quarterback.  Harbaugh manages to piece together a nice season, bolstered by the talent of Harrison, Holt, and Faulk.  Faulk’s contract is about to run out and he puts up 2000 yards from scrimmage.  The Colts go 9-7, and barely make the playoffs, only to lose in the first game.

Consequences: With Faulk almost certain to leave as a free agent, the Colts enter the 2000 draft needing a running back. Remember that they have New Orleans’ pick, which is 2nd overall. Indy takes Jamaal Lewis with the pick, and then takes Chris Hovan later in the first round.  Marshall Faulk winds up in Miami who always coveted him.

2000: The Leaf era comes crashing down.  He’s awful, gets hurt and cut.  The Colts go 1-8 in games in which he plays.  Harbaugh pulls out a few wins, but the Colts careen to a 5-11 season.  That drops Jim Mora’s record in Indianapolis to 16-32.  He promptly gets fired.  Indy hires Herm Edwards to be the new head Coach.

Consequences: The Colts need a quarterback as Leaf is unceremoniously dumped. Unfortunately, the 6th pick in the draft has no good names available. With attendance dropping, and rumors of the Colts moving to L.A. mounting, the Colts know they need a pick that will galvanized the fans.  The trade out of the 6th spot, moving toward the back half of the first round. With the 30th pick of the first round, they take Drew Brees out of Purdue.  Colts fans are over the moon, as Brees ranks among the most popular college players (even with Indiana fans) in state history.  With Holt and Harrison to throw to, Brees develops quickly and winds up saving the team in Indianapolis. 

Five seasons later in 2005, Herm Edwards becomes the first African American head coach to win a Super Bowl. 

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