The Manning & Leaf Saga of 1998
1998 Manning went in knowing he would be the first or second pick, all depending on whether the Colts wanted to use that first pick on Ryan Leaf. Luckily for Peyton, Leaf made the decision an easy one for the Colts. After showing up to the NFL Combine 25 pounds overweight, he skipped his meeting with the Colts and all but told them he didn’t want them to pick him. It was Indianapolis or San Diego, and Leaf was more than happy to go second if it meant playing in Southern California.
Despite that, there are tales suggesting the decision came right down to the last few minutes. Eventually, the Colts picked Manning, the Chargers picked Leaf, and the NFL would never be the same.
If you care to catch up from 1990-1997 before diving into this 1998 adventure, press the Shiny Red Button!
1st overall – Peyton Manning
1998 was one of the most anticipated drafts in a very long time. Peyton Manning was finally on the board, and the Colts had won the sweepstakes. If you pick the right year to do it, winning and losing in the NFL can both be a success. I’ll try not to go through his career fully year by year, but we’re talking about one of the greatest players of all time, so be ready for a long stroll.
After a dismal 3-13 year, having the first overall pick meant Indianapolis had their choice between Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf to succeed… let me check my notes… Jim Harbaugh? Yeesh.
Manning was coming to a team that had at least some offensive pieces in place, including Marvin Harrison and Marshall Faulk and Mike Vanderjagt and Tony Mandarich. Okay so it wasn’t all great. Harrison played 12 games before going to IR with a separated shoulder, and Faulk, who delivered over 2,100 yards from scrimmage in ’98, was traded after the season. Vanderjagt is a kicker and that was a joke. Plus he and Manning had a hate-hate relationship.
Mandarich was also a joke. I’m a Packers fan and we’re about to talk about Ryan Leaf, so I found it interesting that Manning spent his first season (or at least part of it before Mandarich went on IR, then retired) being protected by the previously biggest 2nd overall pick bust in NFL history. All that great protection led Manning to throw an impressive 26 TDs, but it came alongside a discouraging 28 INTs.
Was he the right choice? Considering Leaf’s ratio was 2:15, it would seem he was the better choice between the two. But the team record didn’t budge, and Manning’s rookie year ended in the same 3-13 pit from which Indianapolis had hoped he would pull them out.
However, in 1999, Manning very quickly showed why the investment paid off. Their ’98 record landed them the 4th overall pick, which they used to replace the versatile Faulk with a more between-the-tackles runner in Edgerrin James. Manning quickly established a strong connection with 1st Team All-Pro Marvin Harrison, who delivered 115 catches and 12 TDs. Manning’s 4,100 yards and 26 TDs, while cutting his picks in half, earned him 2nd Team All-Pro and 2nd place finish in MVP voting. Unfortunately, all that effort and the playoff bye week they earned with their 13-3 record only led to a disappointing loss to Tennessee in the first playoff appearance for the young QB.
2000 ended with growing statistics from Manning, Harrison, and James, leading to a 10-6 record and another playoff berth. Unfortunately again, they were eliminated right away in an overtime loss to the Dolphins. It was clear that Manning’s prowess was growing, but he was 0-2 in the playoffs and starting to face the dreaded “can’t deliver in big games” moniker.
2001 left the team bruised and battered. Sometimes literally. Manning’s interception number went back up to 23, James only played 6 games before losing the rest of the year to an ACL, and it was becoming clear the team had spent too much focus on offense while the defense was getting torched. After starting 4-6, Mora was asked about the playoffs, leading to one of the greatest press conference moments ever. They finished the season 6-10, giving up 486 points (over 30 per game average), the 4th-most points given up in history at the time (it’s now 11th).
In 2002 (okay we’re basically going year by year, deal with it), they were back to 10-6 and the playoffs. Harrison caught 143 passes for what was then a single-season record (now 3rd) and new coach Tony Dungy led them into a wildcard game. Dungy’s Tampa 2 defense paid off as they jumped from dead last to 7th in points allowed. But again, they would come up short, this time at the hands of a 41-0 drubbing by the Jets, leaving Manning 0-3 in the playoffs.
The Turning Point
The talk was growing. Manning can’t deliver in the playoffs. Manning can’t win the big game. Manning doesn’t have the mythical clutchiness that makes closers better in the 9th inning. But Dungy was just getting started. 2003 saw Colts start 5-0 and finish 12-4. Perhaps the most memorable game of the season, and what felt like a turning point in Manning’s career, was a week 5 Monday Night Football showdown with the defending champ Bucs.
I watched that game at a bar, and I’m not exaggerating when I say a packed bar went completely silent. The place was packed and the music was blaring, and I was up at the bar talking to the bar owner about the game when he decided to turn off the music and turn up the TV. Probably 50 people just stood there watching and listening as Manning led a miraculous comeback. Something special just happened, and it was obvious to everyone.
Indy entered the playoffs as a wildcard team, and this time Peydirt had a different kind of determination. He pasted Denver for 377 yards and 5 TDs in just 3 quarters before giving way to backup Brock Huard. Their season ended in the AFC championship game in the first of many epic battles between Manning and Tom Brady‘s Patriots. But Manning had the playoff monkey off his back, and his first AP MVP award in his case.
2004 was more of the same, going 12-4 again, beating up the Broncos in a wildcard game, and losing to the Pats to end the season. But Manning had taken another personal step forward, breaking Dan Marino‘s single-season TD record by throwing 49 TDs in just 15 games. This also brought him MVP number 2.
After a torrid 14-2 season in 2005 that had old Dolphins players shaking through the first 13 games, the Colts gave their fans a dose of nostalgia by losing their first playoff game. But this time they did it in style in one of the more bizarre endings to a playoff game. Peyton again led a great comeback, but the real feature was an improbable Jerome Bettis fumble that led to Ben Roethlisberger delivering the most significant shoestring tackle in playoff history.
Finally, in 2006, Peyton got over that final hurdle. A 12-4 record won the division, but still left them with a wildcard game. Despite all the expectations, Manning seemed determined to prove his naysayers right, throwing just 1 touchdown and 5 picks in the first 2 rounds. But the Colts defense carried them through, setting the stage for an epic Manning v. Brady AFC Championship showdown. And it did not disappoint. Down 21-6 at halftime, it appeared as though Manning’s reputation for losing the big game would be earned once again. What followed was a 32-point second half explosion that led the Colts to a 38-34 win and Peyton Manning’s first Super Bowl berth. An efficient, well-rounded offense and dominant defensive performance led them to a decisive 29-17 Super Bowl win against the Bears. Peyton Manning’s 2 league MVPs finally had a new friend in his case… a Super Bowl MVP.
And Then the Rest
With the Super Bowl monkey off his back, Manning put together dozens of memorable performances the rest of his time in Indianapolis, including 2 more league MVPs for a record of 4 total. In 2011, his career was thrown a massive curveball thanks to a neck injury that required surgery and left him out the entire season. For various reasons, the Indianapolis front office decided not to bring him back, and for the first time in his career, Manning was able to test the market.
After a multiple team bidding war, he eventually signed with Denver, and a new chapter of his legacy began. He made his way back to the Super Bowl in his second year with the Broncos, a year where he threw a still-record 55 TDs and won his still-record 5th league MVP. But they lost the Super Bowl in a 43-8 embarrassment to Seattle and their young QB, Russell “Broncos Country, Let’s Ride” Wilson.
Finally, Peyton Manning’s 18-year career came to an end, and like the last Broncos Hall-of-Fame QB, he went out with his second Super Bowl title. Amidst an injury that kept him out for 6 games and his worst statistical season since he was a rookie, the Broncos defense absolutely locked down every offense they faced. And despite an almost non-existent offensive performance, the Broncos beat the Panthers 24-10. Probably not Peyton’s dream performance to exit the league, but he was able to walk away a champion.
These days, Peyton and his brother Eli offer football insight on Monday Night Football, and Peyton has established himself as a prominent TV personality. Even though it has almost no engagement, this is my pinned Tweet because it’s my favorite:
Maybe I’ll pick a new one someday if something goes viral-ish or I start to care more about Twitter… ahem, sorry, X Corp. Whatever. On a scale of 1 to Peyton is the best Manning, I give him a 10.
2nd overall – Ryan Leaf
Ryan Leaf has had one of the most incredible and storied careers. Yes, he was a draft bust. Yes, some consider him the biggest bust in NFL history. Yes, I bet he’s secretly thankful that JaMarcus Russell came along. But while Peyton’s 5 MVPs and incredible playing career are a great narrative, so too is a tale of woe and redemption. Most of us can’t imagine a Peyton Manning-life, being the son of an NFL QB, growing up as the best at every level, culminating in a brilliant career at the highest of levels. Seriously, I just dropped 1,500 words on you about Peyton Manning, and that was after cutting it short.
A Ryan Leaf-life is simply more relatable.
I could try to explain the process through which Leaf was considered for the 1st pick and ultimately dropped to 2nd en route to a short, frustrating career, substance abuse issues, jail time, and all kinds of spirals and surges. But the Ryan Leaf of today tells the story so gracefully and graciously that it would be wrong of me to try summarizing his tragic and ultimately, finally uplifting tale.
Today, Ryan Leaf is a public speaker and college football and NFL analyst. He is often hired by teams to speak to prospects and rookies about the transition from college to the NFL, using his own experience as a cautionary tale. Since September of 2022, he has hosted a podcast called The Straight Line with Ryan Leaf. In December of 2022, he released a separate podcast series called Bust, which was a 10 episode dive through his football life, his time in prison, and his journey to sobriety.
On a scale of 1 to perfect cautionary tale for young draft picks, I give him an 11. It’s 1 louder. And I love that he’s embraced that role.
Other Notable QBs from 1998 Draft
- Charlie Batch (2nd Round, Pick 60)
- Brian Griese (3rd Round, Pick 91)
- Matt Hasselbeck (6th Round, Pick 187)
- Fun fact: Ryan Leaf originally didn’t plan to participate in the NFL Combine. When Leaf changed his mind, someone else had to be cut from the event. That person was Matt Hasselbeck, who went on to play 17 seasons with 3 Pro Bowls and a Super Bowl appearance. Courtesy ranking: On a scale of 1 to we want the ball and we’re gonna score, I give him a pick 6.