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What If Ryan Leaf Had Stayed Healthy?

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Ryan Leaf #16

The SB Nation NFL team sites are continuing to do Theme Weeks after starting the trend during the 2017 season. This week’s theme is: “What if?


Ryan Leaf

With the #2 overall pick in the 1998 NFL Draft, the Chargers selected QB Ryan Leaf from Washington State.

You could hear a million arguments at the time of why the Indianapolis Colts should, and should not, draft Peyton Manning with the #1 pick. Many thought Ryan Leaf had a better future because he had a better arm.

Leaf, who wanted to follow in the footsteps of Dan Fouts, had made his mind up. He worked with his agent to anger Colts Head Coach Jim Mora Sr. and worked behind the scenes to let the Chargers know that he was doing so to ensure he could be the next Chargers QB. He may have been the 2nd pick in the draft, but Ryan ended up with his #1 choice.

Read here about how Leaf was not what you would call a “draft bust” early in his career. In fact, it wasn’t until he faced a serious shoulder injury followed by a serious wrist injury that things really went sideways for the former Cougar.

Why is that important?

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.

After three years, Leaf’s body was so beat up that he couldn’t throw a football. A real shame for a guy who some still talk about having one of the biggest arms in college football history. A real shame for a guy that wanted to come to the Chargers so that he could show off that arm with big passes and big plays down the field.

That 1-15 record, the one that sunk Mike Riley’s career as an NFL head coach, was a direct result of an injured QB and a misdiagnosis at the hands of a reckless team doctor. It was also the end of Leaf’s time in San Diego.

What if things had gone differently?

The most notable difference for the Chargers, had Leaf stayed healthy, is not that they potentially have their franchise QB. That’s a minor blip...

(Also, here is where I point out that it’s really difficult to predict Leaf could’ve been playing in Pro Bowls when the guy could barely crack 50% completion percentage in a league that was amping up the importance of exactly that skill/stat.)

Leaf’s injuries lead to the 1-15 season that changed the team’s course forever. It led to the firing of the front office and coaching staff, replacing them with John Butler (and A.J. Smith) from Buffalo and famed Chiefs/Browns coach Marty Schottenheimer.

It also leads to the team trading away the #1 overall pick and getting back a package that helped them build a core of:

  • LaDainian Tomlinson
  • Drew Brees
  • Reche Caldwell
  • Tim Dwight

That’s two Hall of Famers and two very good NFL players that probably never play a down for the Chargers if Leaf stays healthy and is at least a league-average QB through his early 20s, which is/was entirely possible.

If you’re the type to look for silver linings, as I am, don’t think of Ryan Leaf as the failed draft pick. Think of Ryan Leaf as exactly the type of player the Chargers needed to end up drafting two Hall of Fame players in the same draft class and be thankful that things turned out the way they did.

What do you think would have happened? Did things turn out better or worse than they would have?