clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Ryan Leaf Was A Quarterback Once

Sep 20, 1997; Champaign, IL, USA; FILE PHOTO; Washington State Cougars quarterback Ryan Leaf (16) in action against the Illinois Illini at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: US PRESSWIRE
Sep 20, 1997; Champaign, IL, USA; FILE PHOTO; Washington State Cougars quarterback Ryan Leaf (16) in action against the Illinois Illini at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: US PRESSWIRE

You probably best remember Ryan Leaf from his great days in the league, when the San Diego Chargers decided he was only a step below Peyton Manning. Here's a sample of his highlights.

Now that you've gotten your yuk-yuks out of your system, it's time for you to remember that before his pro days, he was a Washington State Cougar, and he was a damned good one.

Long before media outbursts and drug possession charges and 39 quarterback ratings, Leaf ran the simplistic but deadly effective one back offense under Mike Price. In many ways it was one of the precursors to what the modern spread attack looks like in college. Placing four wide receivers on the field made it all the harder for Pac-10 defenses to cover every area of real estate when Leaf was paired with capable offensive weapons.

What usually happened would be a mixture of short/long plays. If the defense played back to guard against long throws, do a quick outside throw to bring in defenders. Punish tight coverage by hitting the zones or beating them outside. When defenses cheat to stop those plays, run the football or stretch things with screens. The offense was very tough to stop, particularly against defenses that didn't mix it up a lot. And most college defenses tend to have base schemes but lack versatility in the playbook, making it easier to exploit any weaknesses in the Coug passing defense. Once the quarterback mastered the schemes, it was bombs away.

It led to one hell of a senior season for Leaf: 34 touchdowns, 3968 passing yards, 9.7 yards per attempt. Leaf executed the Price offense to perfection en route to Washington State's first Rose Bowl in 67 years. He knew how to make the right decisions after one or two reads of the defense, giving Leaf a strong incentive to succeed down the line. It was that potential that gave NFL fans reason to believe he could succeed once he transitioned to the next level.

For whatever reason, Leaf couldn't make the transition to the pros. There was one clear warning sign (he never completed more than 55.4% of his passes in a season, he was 8-14 the previous two seasons), and if he couldn't play that efficiently in that system, he was due for a fall when he dealt with the complexity of NFL defenses. In many ways, his deficiencies were disguised by the ingenious scheme of Price, which focused on taking the burden off the quarterback to make complicated moves and just go with it.

It also seemed he just couldn't handle the scrutiny of being the number two pick and not coming out and succeeding right away. The offense of Price was excellent for the college game, but it couldn't have particularly endured in the pros where defenses were adept at countering one reads and good at mixing things up. Also, the league was still not quite yet ready for the spread attack back then and Leaf wasn't adept at handling pro-style.

Which is why this whole situation is so sad. It's tough to see an athlete fall apart, and it's even worse to see him fall apart over and over again. There is no joy to be found in Leaf's post-college career, and it seems everytime we look back it's hard to like what we see.

Regardless of all the mistakes he's made and afflictions he's suffered since leaving Pullman, Pac-12 and Washington State fans shouldn't forget the past. There was a Ryan Leaf to appreciate once. Hopefully he can learn to appreciate himself again.