Peyton manning. Ryan Leaf. Leaf. Manning. Manning. Leaf. Manning is more polished. Leaf throws a better deep ball. Leaf is built like a tree trunk. Manning is the ultimate student of the game. Manning is now. Leaf is the future.
As Bill Polian lay in his bed a week or so before April's NFL draft, sleep was fleeting. "The football demons kept waking me up," says Polian, who last December became president of the Indianapolis Colts and had the first pick in the draft. "They came jumping out at the oddest times." They were telling Polian that, based on recent drafts, there was a better than 50-50 chance he would pick a quarterback who would fall flat on his face as a pro.
Although he favored Tennessee's Manning over Washington State's Leaf, Polian had trouble putting this baby to bed. He had watched tape of each of Manning's 1,505 passes for the Vols as well as Leaf's 880 for the Cougars. Then twice more he watched every pass that Manning and Leaf threw during the 1997 season, charting on separate legal pads each player's success or failure in making tough throws, long throws, throws on the move. He asked new Colts coach Jim Mora to look twice at every pass that Leaf and Manning threw in college. Quarterbacks coach Bruce Arians viewed every pass four times; other staffers watched three times each.
Polian paid quarterback guru Bill Walsh $5,000 to analyze tape of both quarterbacks. He grilled former NFL quarterback Phil Simms and Vanderbilt coach Woody Widenhofer, both of whom had studied Leaf and Manning. Polian was so meticulous in putting the two players through separate workouts in early April that he even noted how accurately each of them could throw a long pass without striding (Leaf 60 yards, Manning 58, by the way). All told, Polian had spent about 14 hours a day over a 28-day span studying Leaf and Manning. "Did we overanalyze?" he says. "Absolutely."
Finally, on April 18, Polian took Manning. His reasons: Manning had more experience (45 college starts to 24 for Leaf), a stronger work ethic, an NFL-quality arm and better preparation for handling the scrutiny every top pick faces. But Polian's work didn't stop with the selection of a quarterback. This season Polian will act as a gatekeeper for all of the personal-appearance inquiries that the team receives for Manning, and he assigned one club employee to handle all internal autograph requests.
Deep down, Polian is secure in his choice, happy that the Colts have their quarterback of the future. But he realizes he can't control what happens to Manning from here on out. "History tells us that sometimes fate intervenes," Polian says, "and you're going to make the wrong decision half the time."
In 1948 Chicago Bears coach George Halas traded disappointing rookie Bobby Layne, who eventually became one of the NFL's top quarterbacks with the Detroit Lions. In the late '50s the Pittsburgh Steelers gave up on young signal-callers John Unitas and Jack Kemp, and kept, among others, Vic Eaton and Jack Scarbath. Warren Moon wasn't among the 334 players selected in the '78 draft. The following year Joe Montana was a third-round pick. In '83 the Lions felt so good about incumbent Eric Hipple that they passed on Jim Kelly and Dan Marino. In '91 at least 10 teams had Browning Nagle rated higher than Brett Favre.
Of the 10 quarterbacks who have been selected among the top 10 picks in the regular or supplemental draft during the 1990s, only the New England Patriots' Drew Bledsoe has performed at a Pro Bowl-caliber level. Seven have struggled mightily (Dave Brown, Rick Mirer, Heath Shuler, Trent Dilfer, Kerry Collins) or been abject failures (Andre Ware, David Klingler); Steve McNair was mediocre last season, his first as a starter, and for all the passing yards he has amassed in his eight seasons, Jeff George has never won a playoff game or been to a Pro Bowl.
In the only other recent draft (1993) in which quarterbacks were selected 1-2, the Pats guessed right in taking Bledsoe out of Washington State; he has thrown 108 touch-down passes, been to three Pro Bowls and helped New England get to Super Bowl XXXI. Picking second, the Seattle Seahawks took Mirer, who it turns out was woefully unprepared coming out of Notre Dame. When a guy is a 54% passer as a senior with marvelous protection, as Mirer was, shouldn't that have sent up a red flag? "It should have," one former Seattle assistant says. "He wasn't ready for a sophisticated pro offense, and he was very predictable in where he'd throw." The Seahawks gave up on Mirer after four seasons and traded him to Chicago; he's now fighting for a roster spot with the Bears.
Twelve of the 30 projected starting quarterbacks this fall were selected in the third round or later, and two more were undrafted free agents. The quest for a quarterback who may one day lead a team to a Super Bowl is getting more and more like the lottery: Take your best shot, then cross your fingers.