|Since they were drafted first and second in the 1998 NFL draft, Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf have been inexorably linked in the minds of football fans. They have evolved into polar opposites, yang and yin, incredibly good and impossibly bad.
"Ryan and I still talk, still remain friends," Manning said Wednesday on a national conference call. "We really don't talk about our individual situations. I'm not old enough to give anybody advice. I'm 24 years old. I'm still learning myself, trying to figure a lot of things out."
Where, then, does that leave Leaf?
Manning, humble to a fault, has the Indianapolis Colts headed toward the playoffs for the second straight year. He looks like a future Hall of Famer. Leaf, self-centered to a fault, is a part-time player for the 0-10 San Diego Chargers. What, exactly, is his future?
It almost certainly will not involve San Diego next season.
The Chargers and Leaf himself have independently suggested as much. In three injury-ravaged seasons, Leaf has played in only 15 games and started 12. He has completed 171 of 368 passes (46.5 percent) for 1,910 yards, 23 interceptions and four touchdowns.
"I was just looking at him on film this morning," said Tom Donahoe, the former Pittsburgh Steelers director of football operations, on Wednesday. "He threw some excellent balls last Sunday against Miami, but he also made some of the dumbest throws a quarterback can make. He's a mystery to me.
"I still think he's going to make it in this league -- he's too talented not to. I just don't think it will be in San Diego."
The current consensus around the NFL is that Leaf, who has one year left on his contract, will be traded or waived after the season. Two scenarios could keep Leaf in San Diego: 1) if Chargers president Dean Spanos dictates policy to the football brain trust, or 2) if the team fires head coach Mike Riley and the new coach is willing to invest time and effort in bringing Leaf around.
Riley, oddly enough, has been asked more about his muddled quarterback situation than his own job (in)security.
"I think we have to examine every opportunity to explore the quarterback situation and add to what we have," Riley said last week. "I'm not talking about cleaning the slate with what we have here. But I know that we'll need to address the quarterbacking and try to create some competition for the year to come."
Certainly, it isn't pretty. Leaf, despite a strained left hamstring, will start Sunday in Denver. Fourteen-year veteran Jim Harbaugh, who is nursing a mild hernia and a deep thigh bruise, will be the backup. Moses Moreno will miss the game with a strained knee ligament. The Chargers briefly considered bringing in emergency help but re-signed Kevin Daft to the practice squad.
Leaf started the first two games of the season, but he was benched in favor of Moreno for the third game. Leaf came back to start the fourth game but a sprained wrist led to five consecutive starts for Harbaugh. Moreno started last week's game, a 17-7 loss to Miami, but all three quarterbacks played. And, for the first time in seven years, three quarterbacks on the same team all threw interceptions. For the record, the Chargers have thrown an NFL-high 20 interceptions.
From the beginning, Leaf's attitude has left a lot to be desired.
"I didn't leave school early to sit on the bench," he said when he arrived in San Diego.
Leaf had a terrific preseason in 1998 and became the first rookie quarterback since John Elway to open the season with two straight victories. That was the high-water mark. He lost the starting job after nine games and finished with two touchdowns and 15 interceptions and the league's worst passer rating (39.0).
His second season was a complete washout after he suffered an injury to his throwing shoulder. He has been alternately petulant and blasé in the intervening months. Management has questioned his work ethic. His teammates seem to loathe him; some even roll their eyes when Leaf's name comes up.
Three weeks ago, after he begged off practice with his sprained right wrist, Leaf was spotted playing golf. After a local television weatherman joked that he might not be able to offer a forecast because of a sore wrist, Leaf went through a full practice for the first time in a month.
In 1998, Donahoe attended Leaf's final preseason game at Minnesota. He was impressed.
"He showed toughness, an ability to throw all the passes," Donahoe said. "I thought this guy was going to be a star. Everyone did. The Colts may not admit it, but it came down to the last few minutes of the draft with Leaf and Manning."
Donahoe believes that, injuries aside, Leaf's problems are not on the physical side. The time has come, according to Donahoe, for professional help. During the offseason, when the Chargers restructured Leaf's deal, Leaf agreed to see a sports psychologist, and he later confirmed that he had met with one.
Said someone who follows the team closely, "Everybody and everyone is the problem -- except Ryan -- in his mind. The great ones have a commitment to the game. Ryan doesn't (and) hasn't been able to show that."
|Ryan Leaf's latest controversy involved golfing with an injured wrist.|
"He may need a sports psychologist, to get his attitude straightened out," said Donahoe, echoing several other NFL personnel experts. "He needs someone to help him work through his problems. The question you have to ask: How important is this to him?
"He's a flop right now, one of the worst draft choices in history. Does he want to live with that?"
So will Leaf wind up in the CFL, NFL Europe or even Vince McMahon's XFL? Will he put his major of broadcast journalism at Washington State to use? Or will he just retire to his big house in Del Mar, Calif.? Considering his considerable ego, none of those options are likely. Even with all of that baggage, there seems to be a good chance that some NFL team, if the price is right, will take another shot.
"There's been enough examples of reclamation projects," Donahoe said. "Look at what Trent Dilfer and Jeff Blake have done in Baltimore and New Orleans. There is such a shortage of talent at that position. Somebody's going to take a chance."
Manning seems to agree.
"You've seen it before," the Colts' quarterback said. "You've seen a lot of guys, a lot of high draft choices, No. 1 picks that it's taken five, six years to get established, and all of a sudden they get in a new situation, the light turns on and they turn it around.
"I certainly hope that's the case with him."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
||(Leaf) is a flop right now, one of the worst draft choices in history. Does he want to live with that? ”
||— Tom Donahoe, ex-Steelers director of football operations
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