What Ryan Leaf Thinks About Being Called The 'Biggest Bust' In NFL History

There probably isn't any position in football that has more boom-or-bust potential than quarterback. It's easy to be blinded by arm strength or unusual athleticism or size for the position; while these things can help a college signal-caller successfully transition to the pros, it's so hard to accurately gauge one's intangibles such as their leadership skills or their ability to make the right plays at the right time. That's precisely why guys like Tom Brady slipped all the way down to the sixth round of the draft. And that's why JaMarcus Russell and Tim Couch are considered among the worst No. 1 overall picks in NFL history, with erstwhile Carolina Panthers QB Baker Mayfield likely to join that list if he doesn't turn things around soon.

Yes, it can be argued that Russell and Couch were colossal flops and that Mayfield, solid 2020 season notwithstanding, is headed on that path. But many will also argue that yet another highly-regarded quarterback, Ryan Leaf, was the biggest bust of them all. Selected No. 2 by the then-San Diego Chargers in the 1998 NFL Draft, the ex-Washington State star had many of the attributes that scouts covet in a young signal-caller — a rocket arm, impressive size, gaudy college stats, you name it. In fact, many general managers (via Sports Illustrated) believed that he should have gone first overall to the Indianapolis Colts, who used their No. 1 pick on the University of Tennessee's Peyton Manning.

As it turned out, Manning went on to enjoy a Hall of Fame career with two Super Bowl wins, while Leaf was out of the NFL after three seasons. But what does he think about his status as possibly the biggest NFL draft bust ever?

Leaf has learned to 'own up' to his mega-bust status

Ryan Leaf's time with the San Diego Chargers was marked by disappointing play almost from the word "go." Per Pro Football Reference, he threw a pitiful two touchdown passes to 15 interceptions as a rookie in 1998, and while his sophomore season was statistically better, his 11-18 TD-INT ratio definitely left a lot to be desired. And he wasn't that much better in Dallas either. All told, he finished his NFL career with a 4-17 win-loss record as a starter, 14 TD passes, and 36 picks.

Not only was Leaf statistically terrible on the football field. He also dealt with prescription drug addiction and had multiple run-ins with the law. As of 2010, however, he had seemingly cleaned up and turned his life around at the age of 33, and he spoke to the Los Angeles Times about various topics, including how he felt about being considered the NFL Draft's all-time biggest bust.

"If I'm going to be the biggest bust, I have to own up to it," Leaf told the outlet. "I used to go to bed at night hoping somebody else like [former Washington Redskins QB-turned-congressman] Heath Shuler might magically leapfrog me on those all-time bust lists." He went on to say that it wouldn't have been possible anyway because he couldn't think of anybody else who had failed to live up to expectations as badly as he did.

It was very hard for him at first to deal with being a draft flop

In his Los Angeles Times interview, Ryan Leaf took full responsibility for his lack of NFL success, admitting to the publication that he was very immature upon entering the league and that he felt embarrassed by his past actions. While he said that it might have helped if he didn't leave college after his junior year and if he surrounded himself with the right people, he acknowledged that he probably wouldn't have listened to them anyway. These were the words of a man who was seemingly at peace with his past and willing to show accountability for his mistakes.

On the other hand, Leaf also told the L.A. Times that there was a long period of time where he was having trouble living with his reputation as a draft bust, and that contributed in a way to his drug problems. "For so many years I just wanted to pretend none of it happened," he revealed. "I had such a bad feeling about myself, telling no one, and here it was piling up for 10 years. I was in pain, and I knew when I took prescription drugs I didn't feel anything. If you don't feel anything, then you don't have those bad feelings."

If you or anyone you know needs help with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Leaf said it could've been worse for him in a number of ways

After his brief run in the NFL, Ryan Leaf was able to find football employment outside the league. He spent some time as an assistant coach for West Texas A&M, but even at that point, he was still abusing drugs, this time doing so for his emotional pain and not the physical pain caused by his past injuries, he admitted to the Los Angeles Times. In 2009, he was arrested on drug charges (via The Spokesman-Review), and this led to a stint in rehab for both his substance abuse and his anger management issues.

According to Leaf, it could have ended up worse for him if not for his reputation as a high-profile NFL draft bust. "If I didn't have such notoriety, maybe it would have been shuffled under the carpet, and I would have continued on the wrong path until I killed myself," he told the L.A. Times. "But I'm such a public person, so it got thrown to the media right away. I resented notoriety for so long, but it may have saved my life."

Earlier in the interview, Leaf said that his situation could have been worse in another way, and that is if he ended up with the Indianapolis Colts as the No. 1 pick of the 1998 draft. "It's bad enough as it is, but just imagine if I had been picked ahead of Peyton [Manning]," he said, also noting that he considers Manning to be the greatest NFL signal-caller since the latter's fellow Colts legend, Johnny Unitas, who played for the organization when it was based in Baltimore.

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ by dialing 988 or by calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

More recently, he said Baker Mayfield 'sounds like the 1998 version of Ryan Leaf'

Sadly, Ryan Leaf's troubles — legal and otherwise — weren't over after that 2010 L.A. Times interview, as documented by publications such as the Great Falls Tribune and The Desert Sun. Even in middle age, it would seem that Leaf struggles at times with the personal demons he faced as a younger man. But he still isn't ashamed to reference his draft-bust past when talking about quarterback prospects coming out of college.

One good example came ahead of the 2018 NFL Draft when Leaf guested on a Cleveland radio show (via New York Daily News) and compared Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield to none other than himself. "A good litmus test for me is always when I listen to radio interviews or TV interviews, I tend to close my eyes and just listen to the voice, and hear the answer. I always say, 'if it sounds like the 1998 version of Ryan Leaf, there's definitely a red flag that needs to be raised there," the former No. 2 overall draft pick said, referring to Mayfield's remarks about not wanting to change who he is after he makes his NFL debut. He also expressed concern about Mayfield's alcohol-related 2017 arrest and his on-field shenanigans during his time with the Sooners.

On one end, Mayfield has, unlike Leaf, stayed out of off-field trouble in the pros. And while Mayfield has certainly had better numbers so far (not a very high bar to clear, if we're being honest), Leaf might have been right about him to a certain extent — his stats have been on a downward trajectory since his career-best 2020 campaign, and multiple reports have painted Mayfield as someone who "rubs people the wrong way."