Is Ryan Leaf the Worst QB in Cowboys History?

Ryan Leaf’s story is a cautionary tale of what can happen when things go wrong for NFL prospects. Once the second overall pick in the draft, Leaf’s injury history combined with off-field baggage made him one of the biggest busts in NFL history. His final year with Dallas was a four-game disaster, and it might’ve secured Leaf’s place as the worst Cowboys quarterback in history.

Ryan Leaf’s story

Leaf spent three years at Washington State before entering the NFL. A Cougars freshman during a losing season, the Montana native only threw sporadically. By his second year, however, Leaf was the team’s go-to QB. By year three, Washington State was a completely different team, ranking ninth in the nation in the final AP Poll. 

Leaf’s third year was easily his best. He threw for 3,968 yards en-route to 34 touchdowns and only 11 interceptions. Thanks to his ability to get the ball down the field, his NFL prospects looked bright. Peyton Manning was the darling of the 1998 NFL Draft. But Leaf served as a nice consolation prize for the next team. The San Diego Chargers ended up trading for the second pick to snag him.

Leaf showed almost immediately that he was not cut out for the league. During his nine starts as a rookie, he struggled to connect with teammates, throwing just 45% of his passes to completion. He finished the year with only two touchdowns along with 15 interceptions. 

After missing the entire 1999 season with an injury, Leaf’s second season wasn’t much better. While he got his completion rate up to 50%, injuries continued to hobble him and the numbers were still bad. Leaf started nine games as a sophomore and went 1-8. He threw for 1,883 yards and 11 touchdowns, but his interceptions rose to 18.

The Ryan Leaf experiment was a disaster. By the 2001 season, he was throwing for a new team. 

The Dallas Cowboys acquire Leaf

Quarterback Ryan Leaf of the Dallas Cowboys rests on the sideline
Cowboys quarterback Ryan Leaf rests on the sideline | Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The Dallas Cowboys of 2001 were a far cry from the team that took the nation by storm years earlier. While the team had an aging Emmitt Smith, the winning ways they’d once known were nothing but a memory. Leaf wasn’t even the primary option at quarterback. After injuries forced him into the starting job, Leaf disappointed.

His first game, a 13-20 loss to the Atlanta Falcons, wasn’t a total disaster, but it was his only decent performance as a Cowboy. Leaf threw a touchdown and an interception while completing 14 of 22 passes in his first start. By the following week, he was back to his old tricks, throwing 11 for 26 and two interceptions in a lopsided loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. 

After a third-straight loss to the Denver Broncos, Leaf was out as a starter. He retired with 3,666 throwing yards, 13 touchdowns, and 33 interceptions. The Cowboys’ stint was brief, but it highlighted his greatest weaknesses. With off-field issues continuing to occurring, the NFL was done the quarterback, and his legacy is still infamous. 

Is Leaf the worst Cowboys QB ever?

Leaf wasn’t the first bad QB the Cowboys threw out. Brad Johnson had a similar sample size and might’ve upped the mediocrity game with two touchdowns and five interceptions as a Cowboys starter. Kevin Sweeney was famous for his meltdown in the late ’80s, while Tony Banks didn’t even make it onto the Cowboys’ roster after expectations that he’d replace Troy Aikman as the quarterback of the future.

Leaf’s status in the NFL might be infamous, but he also isn’t alone. Where he gets a bad reputation is the off-field scandals combined with the hype of being the No. 2 overall pick. His story isn’t all bad, however, as he’s recently seen redemption in the form of college coverage on ESPN. He may or may not be the worst Cowboys quarterback ever, but he’s found success away from football.