The League

Gene Wang
Fantasy Guru

Gene Wang

A sports staff writer at The Washington Post

Leaf Never Turned It Around

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When we discuss the worst offensive draft pick ever, quarterbacks immediately come to mind. Tim Couch, Cade McNown and Akili Smith were three of the more notorious, and this year we mark the 10th anniversary of that draft in which all three were chosen early in the first round.

In the D.C. area, Heath Shuler holds that distinction. Shuler's career, however, was positively Joe Montana-like compared to that of Ryan Leaf, the No. 2 overall selection by the San Diego Chargers in 1998 and unequivically the worst offensive draft pick in NFL history.

Leaf played 25 games over three seasons and finished his dreadful career with 14 touchdowns, 36 interceptions and 4 wins in 21 starts. Those ridiculously bad statistics alone warrant his name atop this infamous list. The fact he may have been the least pleasant athlete to be around in modern professional sports makes it that much easier to rate him No. 1.

We all remember the incident in 1999 when Leaf shouted down a reporter from the San Diego Union-Tribune. Leaf had to be physically restrained by teammate Junior Seau as cameras captured the pathetic scene.

The following season, Leaf had a heated exchange with then-Chargers GM Bobby Beathard that prompted the team to suspend him without pay. The tempermental quarterback issued an apology a month later, but his career was beyond repair by that point.

What's really unfortunate is that Leaf, in the few interviews he has granted since he stopped playing, doesn't appear to be remorseful for his actions. It's one thing to come emotionally undone as a young player who clearly wasn't ready for the spotlight. It's an entirely different story when many years later, you still seem to feel as if everyone else was culpable but yourself.

Leaf had been out of the public eye since retiring in 2002, but he made headlines again in a bad way last year when he resigned as quarterbacks coach at West Texas A&M University. The school said Leaf left for personal reasons. According to an ESPN report, Leaf allegedly asked a West Texas A&M player for a pill to help him deal with lingering pain from an NFL injury.

"I wish Ryan all the success in the world," WTAMU athletic director Michael McBroom said at the time. "He's been a part of our family for the past three years, and it's always hard to lose a member of your family. But we will move on and so will Ryan Leaf."

Fortunately for the Chagers, they have found stability at quarterback since misfiring on Leaf. Philip Rivers is one of the best young passers in the league, and though he has had his Leaf-esque moments -- including exchanging pointed words with Indianapolis Colts fans while leaving the field during a playoff game two years ago -- it appears he has seen the error of his ways.

"I don't think it looks good jawing with fans. I will tone that down," Rivers told reporters before the start of this past season.

We can only wonder what if Leaf had showed some of that same common sense when he was taking snaps for San Diego. Perhaps he'd still be playing today.

By Gene Wang  |  March 30, 2009; 2:02 PM ET  | Category:  Draft , Gene Wang Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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The NFL has accommodated players who conducted themselves much worse than Ryan Leaf. Wife beaters, pill heads, alcoholics, felons, prima donnas who made Ryan Leaf look like a proverbial shrinking violet, have stayed in the NFL for years, because they had two things Leaf never had, or at least never displayed or cultivated: TALENT and DEDICATION.

Leaf never learned anything while in the NFL. All he had was a tremendously strong throwing arm, that he never trained to throw short or throw soft.

He never learned how to read a defense. He come off the field after throwing an INT, shrug his shoulders, and say that he threw the ball to the spot where he was supposed to throw it, that it wasn't his fault if the defender got to the ball first.

Perhaps worst of all, Leaf never got himself in shape for a NFL season. More than once he'd come off the field after another three and out, gasping like a weekend wannabe touch football player.

He will never be forgotten, and never missed.

Posted by: bfieldk | March 31, 2009 2:32 AM

Whenever I hear about Leaf, I think of guys like Jeff George and Andre Rison and I wonder if anyone has ever made up a list of the most talented players to never quite live up to their promise for the sake of a preoccupation with behaving like an idiot. A shame really.

Posted by: wprioleau | March 31, 2009 3:35 PM

Yeah, Leaf was known as an all around jerk before he started his professional career. A friend of mine went to his school, and while he was still playing professionally, he went back to do an appearance at the school's homecoming game. He did a meet and greet, shaking important people's hands for the cameras. The mascot was there, and appearently knew Leaf personally (he had only been away from the school for a year or two at this point). The mascot spit in his gloved hand, then shook hands with Leaf. My friend was one of only a few people to notice this action. Leaf just kind of looked at his hand in disgust and wiped it off, before going back to trying to make nice for the cameras.

Posted by: akchild | April 1, 2009 6:22 AM

The fact that everyone remembers the names commented on above suggests that they are not the worst. How about Ray McDonald ( whom no one remembers). He led the nation in running in 1966. He was the Skins first round draft choice (personal selection of E.B. WIlliams)and 13th overall in 1967. In 1968 he was allegedly arrested in DC for having public sex with a man, and never played again.

Posted by: msommerville | April 1, 2009 7:34 AM

You can't ignore Heath Shuler. $19 million (which was top pay for QB back then) and nothing to show for it. He never made it as a QB any where else either. If you're that inept you might as well become a politician.

Posted by: claude_musy | April 1, 2009 8:04 AM

I'm not a football fan, but I live in SD, and even I knew Leaf was a disaster. At his worst, he was "rehabbing" an injury by playing touch football with friends, and aggravated the injury. His explanation? "No one can tell me what I can do in my off time." Even his wife eventually left him.

Posted by: babsy1 | April 1, 2009 3:56 PM

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