Ryan Leaf: The NFL’s biggest bust

Ryan Leaf: The NFLs biggest bust

The NFL Draft is undisputedly the largest stage for young athletes on the journey to playing professional football. This is a night in which owners and general managers decide on the future of their team, as former college student-athletes arise to the highest level. Over the course of 50 years of the NFL Draft, there has been a countless number of players that did not turn out as expected, also referred to as “busts”. Regardless of these unfortunate scenarios, one specific player stands out as the most underperforming player in NFL history: Ryan Leaf.

In the 1997 college football season, Washington State quarterback Ryan Leaf had a prolific year, leading his squad to an appearance in the granddaddy of them all: the Rose Bowl. Entering the 1998 NFL Draft, Leaf was a projected top two pick in nearly every draft board across the nation. Although teams marveled at Leaf’s arm talent and drive to win, the Indianapolis Colts would end up passing on him, selecting Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning first overall instead. Ever heard of him?

Even after trading two first-round picks to move up just one spot, it was clear that the San Diego Chargers were going all-in on the kid from Montana. To make matters worse, the Chargers passed on defensive back Charles Woodson to take Leaf with the second pick. Being picked smack in the middle of two eventual hall-of-famers, the expectations for Ryan Leaf were sky-high. 

In the 1998 season, Ryan Leaf had an extremely poor rookie season. In 10 games, he threw just two touchdown passes and a whopping 15 interceptions. Leaf missed weeks 8-13 due to his miserable performances, showing Chargers fans that maybe this wasn’t “the guy” after all. While Leaf’s play improved minorly after he returned, he finished with one of the worst rookie seasons in the history of the game.

Although Leaf struggled mightily in his first year, there was still hope for the future. Many hoped that a full offseason with a new coach and offensive coordinator would boost his confidence. Regardless, it’s a tough transition from college to the NFL, and fans seemed to give him the benefit of the doubt. However, Ryan Leaf could not prove himself. His offseason was headlined by problems with the front office and coaching staff, lowering the team morale. To top it off, Leaf tore his labrum just three weeks before San Diego’s first game, ending his season.

At this point, any hopes for a Ryan Leaf comeback story were shrinking rapidly. As he prepared for the 2000 season, it seemed to be his final chance to prove himself as the future of the Chargers. Sadly, Leaf was unable to work any kind of magic. Leaf threw 18 interceptions and 11 touchdown passes, missing his mark on a breakout season by a wide margin. As the Chargers trudged to a 1-15 record, the team ultimately decided to release Leaf. As Peyton Manning led the Colts to the AFC Championship in January, Leaf was stuck searching for another job. 

In the summer of 2001, Dallas signed Ryan Leaf to be the team’s starting quarterback. In an all-out effort to convert Leaf into the Cowboy’s franchise man, the scheme seemed foolproof. He put together a steady training camp and a surprisingly impressive preseason. Nevertheless, Leaf completely unraveled following an abysmal week one performance, as he wound up being released by week five. The Ryan Leaf experiment was over.

After retiring at just 26 years old, Leaf did not attempt to return to football. The true disappointment that he displayed throughout his short career is nothing short of shocking. In just four years, Leaf went from a top pick in the draft with loads of potential to the laughingstock of the league. The trajectory of Ryan Leaf’s career is truly unprecedented; no single player has ever suffered such defeat in just a few years. 

Peyton Manning would go on to win five MVP awards and two Super Bowls. Charles Woodson would end up winning DPOY (Defensive Player of the Year) six times and picked up a Super Bowl Ring along the way. As both players rode off into the sunset in 2016 and cruised into Akron, former quarterback Ryan Leaf was “enjoying” his 15th year of retirement. The unforgivable, underperforming nature of Leaf simply cannot be understated. As he undermined expectations from NFL fans around the globe, Ryan Leaf will be remembered as the biggest draft bust in the history of football.


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