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From the beginning, Ryan Leaf was set up to fail. Trading 2 first round picks, a second round pick and Eric Metcalf to move up one spot in the draft sent one of two messages: Either the Chargers seriously believed in Leaf or they were seriously desperate. Either way, the onus was put on Ryan Leaf to prove he was worth everything the team gave up. Even if he'd just been serviceable, an average quarterback, he'd still be a bust because of the expectations created by that trade. The Chargers then did him no favors by not even bothering to find a QB to put on the roster that could start and buy Leaf time to adjust. Instead they had Craig Whelihan, which maybe Bobby Beathard and Kevin Gilbride thought would be something more than one of the worst QBs in the league, whose performances just begged the team to give the rookie an early shot. The cherry on top was Leaf's contract, including an $11.25 million signing bonus (at the time a record amount paid to a rookie), which made an already humungous target even larger.
I don't want to detail every aspect of the young and troubled QB's career, either you lived through it or you know enough about the general happenings just by being an NFL fan. What I want to do is provide a little context to him as a football player. Ryan Leaf's rookie year was no shining moment to look back on, but it's not out of line with what could happen to a rookie quarterback. The team kept most of the games close due to a stellar defense headlined by Junior Seau and Rodney Harrison. There were a couple of games where Leaf did all he could to lose them, but for the most part he was getting his feet wet without screwing up too badly considering that Kevin Gilbride's offense is a complicated one to learn even for the best QBs. When Gilbride came to the Giants in Eli Manning's rookie year, Kurt Warner struggled at the helm and Eli Manning went 1-6 with a 48.2% completion percentage and 3 more interceptions thrown than TDs. Leaf didn't get off to a good start, but it by no means signaled that he was already a bust.
Leaf missed the 1999 season and was able to finally get back on the football field during the 2000 season. It was almost crazy to expect him to be the same player with the same potential but because of that draft day trade, the high selection, the Chargers not really looking for alternative options and that big signing bonus, the expectations were still there. The team went 1-15 that season and Leaf was eventually released. In week 4, he suffered a wrist injury that lingered throughout the year. In fact, he failed a physical with the Cowboys when he signed there because of that wrist injury. Why did Leaf play through this injury? Because the Chargers' doctor misdiagnosed him. That same team doctor, David Chao, is still inexplicably with the team and has had a ton of legal problems. Leaf himself sued Chao for malpractice and is one of four Chargers players that have sued Chao and settled out of court. At the end of his career, Ryan Leaf cited the wrist injury as his reason for retiring at age 26. He simply could never throw the ball without discomfort.
This isn't meant to take the blame off of Ryan for the downfall of his football career. He certainly created many of his own problems. However, the injuries are not to be overlooked and the poor work by team doctors contributed further. Without them, maybe there's a coach (one not named Kevin Gilbride or Mike Riley, two of the more clueless NFL head coaches I've ever seen) that could get through to Leaf. Without them, maybe Leaf doesn't get addicted to prescription drugs and doesn't end up where he is now, facing multiple serious charges and looking at significant jail time. Without them, perhaps his commitment to football wouldn't be tested quite as hard as it was. A story on NFL.com came out from Brian Billick talking about the draft and his experience with Ryan Leaf when Billick, then offensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings, was preparing for the 1998 draft.
The true difference between the two quarterbacks was clear when it came to emotional maturity and work ethic. Like everyone else, I was enamored with Leaf's physical skills and had bought into the idea that Manning lacked "upside." I was with the Vikings at the time; because both quarterbacks would be long gone by the time we selected at No. 21 (where we ended up snagging Randy Moss), evaluating them was an academic exercise for our purposes. Still, you do your homework on players like Leaf and Manning because in the age of free agency, you never knew when they might become available.
On the way to the NFL Scouting Combine, I happened to be on a flight next to Ryan Leaf, also on his way to work out at the combine. He looked a lot bigger in person than on game film, so I asked him how much he thought he weighed. He said he had not been working out as regularly as he had during the season, but guessed he weighed between 235 and 240 pounds.
The next day, as I sat in the back of the room watching the quarterbacks being weighed and measured, Leaf -- seeing a familiar face -- gave me a smile as he jumped on the scales. "Two hundred sixty-nine pounds," the scout in charge of weighing players yelled out. Leaf shot me a look of total surprise.
The next time I visited Leaf was later that year, prior to our last preseason game against the Chargers. He had looked good in the preseason and the expectations for him were sky high. I asked him how he was doing and he said, "I don't know what all the fuss is about NFL defenses. I have seen about everything they can throw at me and it's no big deal." You like confidence, but ...
Leaf just wasn't up for big challenges. Expecting him to come back from that shoulder injury was a fool's bet, especially with how he'd alienated himself from most people that would have helped him. Perhaps, he did fully recover from that despite all his setbacks and lengthy recovery. However, the wrist injury was too much. Perhaps, without it, he could've been turned around by a different coaching staff on a new team once the Chargers released him.
That arrogance that Billick talked about could have subsided with maturity and better coaching, but the wrist never gave him that chance. There are a number of ways to look at Leaf's career. His interactions with the media and his terrible stats are certainly a way to do it. However, having lived through his time as a Charger rooting for him to turn it around every step of the way, I couldn't help but notice that he was snake bit as much as he was an unfocused, ignorant jerk.