Who knows if QB Ryan Leaf’s career would’ve been different in Pittsburgh. In San Diego, he turned into one of the biggest busts in NFL history. All Leaf knows is that if he could go back in time, he’d beg the Steelers to find a way to get him.
Leaf appeared on Wednesday’s episode of Cam Heyward’s Not Just Football podcast to talk about his NFL career. In an interview recorded during Super Bowl week, Leaf discussed his pre-draft experience and how comparatively easy it was, knowing he’d be one of the first two players taken alongside QB Peyton Manning.
Getting drafted was the highlight of his career. Everything that followed was a disaster and looking back, Leaf says he wishes he would’ve gone to a place like Pittsburgh.
“I wish I would’ve understood the power that I had,” Leaf told the show. “The leverage that I had. I would’ve went to my agent and said, ‘I don’t care how you make it work, just make sure I end up in Pittsburgh.’ But at the time, I didn’t really care. I was going to get to play pro football.”
Coming out of Washington State, Leaf was considered to be a slam dunk prospect. In college, he threw for 59 touchdowns in three seasons in an era where passing offenses weren’t as refined or prolific as they are today, leading the Cougars to a 10-2 record in his final season.
“Quarterbacks at the top of the draft like that. [Manning] and I, we were graded out at 9.8 in our grades. One of the highest grades ever for draft prospects. So we did whatever we wanted. We didn’t go to things…we had one Pro workout day where we balled out.”
Leaf ultimately went one spot behind Manning, taken 1st overall by the Indianapolis Colts. Pre-draft, the two had similar stories. Post-draft, they had wildly different paths. Manning went on to become a Hall of Fame quarterback and Super Bowl winner. Leaf lasted just two seasons with the Chargers and three in the NFL, throwing only 14 touchdowns to 36 interceptions.
The Steelers never had a chance at Leaf. Instead, they struck gold with LSU OG Alan Faneca 28th overall, who like Manning, went on to become a Hall of Famer. They were two of four Canton-bound players from the first round of that class, joining WR Randy Moss and CB Charles Woodson.
Off the field, Leaf’s life spiraled. Since retiring, he’s been arrested numerous times and spent two years in jail on drug and burglary-related charges. Perhaps that’s where his comments about wanting to go to Pittsburgh stem from. With more structure and avoiding the partier-friendly life of southern California, Leaf may have had a better career.
His story serves as a cautionary tale to each year’s crop of prospects. Like many others, Leaf had all the physical talent in the world. But in the NFL, that isn’t enough to make a career out of. Players have to be mentally and emotionally ready for what professional football brings. There’s fame and fortune but also an immense amount of pressure that’s enough to topple careers like Leaf’s.
Check out the full episode below.