Ryan Leaf may be considered an NFL bust, but he was one heck of a college football player. As a junior at Washington State, Leaf led the nation in passing and was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy. Leaf didn’t win, nor was he expecting to win, and that was just fine with him.
Ryan Leaf or Peyton Manning?
The big question heading into the 1998 NFL draft was: Peyton Manning or Ryan Leaf? That question alone should tell you how good Leaf was as a college quarterback. Leaf threw for 3,968 yards and 34 touchdown passes in his junior year. He also showed off his mobility by rushing for six touchdowns.
The Indianapolis Colts had the first pick in the 1998 NFL draft and decided to take Manning, who also had quite a college season and finished second in the Heisman voting. The San Diego Chargers then selected Leaf with the second overall pick.
Manning went on to have a Hall-of-Fame career. He won two Super Bowls and is considered one of the best to ever play in the NFL. Leaf was considered a bust. His attitude didn’t do him any favors, nor did his play on the field. He spent two seasons in San Diego before getting released. He was out of the league after three seasons.
Leaf finished third in the Heisman voting
Ryan Leaf really broke out during his junior year at Washington State. The 6-foot-5, 245-pound quarterback with mobility was a nightmare for opposing defenses. Leaf helped guide the Cougars to their first Pac-10 championship in school history.
Despite the accolades, Leaf finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting. He didn’t expect to win. “When you’re up against Peyton Manning in any of these awards, you’re not going to win any of them,” he joked recently on The Rich Eisen Show.
“I knew I wasn’t going to win the award,” he reiterated. “I always knew I wasn’t going to win the award. There wasn’t any expectations. I expected Peyton Manning to win and I think most people did.” Defensive back Charles Woodson out of Michigan wound up winning the award. Leaf finished third.
The positives of not winning the Heisman
Ryan Leaf said he didn’t have any expectations to win the Heisman Trophy back in 1997, and he didn’t win. There was no broken heart. No emotional breakdown. In fact, Leaf found a way to get some positives out of his third-place finish.
“I knew I wasn’t going to win,” Leaf said on The Rich Eisen Show, “and I had heard Peyton had rented out a restaurant to celebrate after the fact. Don’t get me wrong, I would have loved to have won it, been there, had the trophy and all that.
“But Charles Woodson had to stay there and do all the media, sign autographs, do all the things – I guess that’s not too bad of a deal. Peyton had to go to this restaurant. Mike Price, the head coach of Washington State, and I went to Saturday Night Live. Jack Nicholson was the host with Helen Hunt. It was amazing.”
All stats courtesy of Sports Reference.