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It is also the human fabric that makes a draft so unpredictable—in any year. Why was Giovanni Carmazzi drafted 134 spots ahead of Tom Brady in 2000? Why can't the Bears ( Rashaan Salaam, Enis, Cedric Benson) pick a running back who can excel at the pro level? How can the slightly built and average-armed Alex Smith get picked first in 2005 while the strong-armed Derek Anderson goes 213th?
"Every year the draft continues to teach us a lesson," says Saints coach Sean Payton, who was Philadelphia's quarterback coach in 1998. "You get excited about a guy because of his tools and projecting his ability, but so much of this is looking beneath the surface."
Says former Packers general manager Ron Wolf, "If I batted .333 in the draft, I was pretty happy. No one bats .500. The fascinating thing about pro football is, no matter how long you're in it, you can't predict how guys are going to handle the pressure, the limelight, the money. Rick Mirer played in front of 80,000 every week in college [for Notre Dame], and apparently he couldn't handle it. Tony Romo played in front of 8,000 [for Division I-AA Eastern Illinois], and he can. Figure that out."
AS THE 1998 draft approached, the job of new Colts general manager Bill Polian was to divine which quarterback should lead his franchise—Manning or Leaf. Polian sat alone in his office for four straight days that February, watching every snap of each passer's college career; by a hair, he favored Manning. He convened a meeting of his scouts; sentiment in the room was 60-40 for Leaf. Polian asked quarterback guru Bill Walsh to evaluate tape of both players; he was bullish on Manning. The Colts worked out both guys; Manning threw a tighter ball and was in much better shape. Manning had the reputation of an Eagle Scout; the Colts had heard the party-hearty Leaf stories. And then there was Manning's visit to Colts headquarters three weeks before the draft.
"I asked if I could see Bill Polian before I left the building," Manning recalled last week. "So I went into his office, and Bill and coach [Jim] Mora were in there. Those are two of the most intimidating people I have ever known, and here I was, wanting to know what they were going to do. To be honest, I felt they were kind of stringing me along. So I said, 'I'd really like to come here if you want me. But if you don't, I promise you I'll come back and kick your ass for the next 15 years.'"
A surprised Polian replied, "Maybe we ought to take you then." And deep down, he loved the quarterback's moxie.
San Diego had the third choice in the draft, but Beathard, desperate for a quarterback, dealt that pick plus his second-rounder (No. 33) and what turned out to be the eighth pick in the '99 draft to the Cardinals to take Leaf. "The ironic thing," says Billy Devaney, Beathard's director of player personnel and now in a similar capacity with the Rams, "was if we didn't move up to take Leaf, we would have picked [defensive end] Andre Wadsworth. So it would have been a disaster no matter what." A knee injury ended Wadsworth's unproductive career after 36 games.
Leaf's disastrous career, including a passer rating of 50.0, ended with a quiet retirement in July 2002. He and Manning are text-messaging friends. In an e-mail reply to SI's request for an interview last week, Leaf declined to relive his nightmare. "Thanks for the thought," he wrote, "but I don't have any interest in doing that. I hope you understand. Peyton's a great guy, and I always have nice things to say to and about him as well. Sincerely, Coach Leaf."
IN ANOTHER year, this decision also made in 1998 would have been the worst of the draft: the failure by every team to choose Hines Ward until the final pick of the third round, when the Steelers took him. Ward had played high school and college football without anyone else knowing that he had no anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, the result of a bike accident when he was nine. The discovery was made during a physical at the combine. He visited Tampa Bay three times before the draft, but the Bucs decided that the risk of injury was too high. What's more, after playing running back, kick returner and quarterback in his first two seasons at Georgia, Ward played wide receiver during his final two seasons. "The scouts thought I was a jack-of-all-trades, master of none," he said. "That hurt me. That plus the ACL, which was never a factor until that day." Ward was the 15th wideout drafted in '98, the one who has since caught 719 passes for 8,737 yards.