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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, February 5, 2010

Super Bowl: Colts’ rise forever linked to 1998 draft decision of Manning over Leaf


MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — April 18, 1998. NFL Draft. The day Earth stood still for the Indianapolis Colts,

With the No. 1 pick, the Colts select . . .
What if the next two words had been Ryan Leaf, instead of Peyton Manning?
The story is dated now, but the ramifications are not. They only grow larger.
Would the Indianapolis Colts be knocking on another Super Bowl title, one of the most respected sport franchises of the age?
Would Tony Dungy be an NFL elder statesman, dispensing life lessons with the credibility that only a Super Bowl ring brings?
Would the Colts be in a new stadium? Isn’t it the House That Peyton Built? What if there had been no Peyton to build it?
With no new stadium, would there even be an Indianapolis Colts?
You could make a reasonable case for no, across the board.
So much of the above - maybe all of the above - flowed from one announcement.
With the No. 1 pick, the Colts select . . .
Twelve years and 209 consecutive Manning starts later, it remains the mother of all draft day decisions. Rare that a franchise’s greatness - and quite possibly its existence - can be traced so clearly to one moment in time.
“We came to a crossroads,” owner Jim Irsay once said, “and took highway 18.”
Peyton Manning’s number.
Manning or Leaf? Leaf or Manning? That was the entire debate. They seemed so close; nearly impossible for the layman to differentiate. Some of the experts, too.
Now Manning directs a juggernaut. The hardest-hearted opponents speak his name in reverential tones. The other 31 teams have had a combined 313 starting quarterbacks since 1998. Indianapolis has had one.
Leaf is long gone from the game, lost in infamy.
What if . . .?
“Obviously,” Irsay said this week, “that kind of setback would have been an incredibly damaging force to the franchise.
“It was amazing how so many people around the league with all their analysis and brilliance came to the conclusion that we could not go wrong either way. Nobody saw it coming, a Super Bowl star and four-time MVP, and a complete bust.”
Irsay understands how the stars had to be aligned. The Colts are here this week, all full of hype and glory, because so many what-ifs never happened.
What if Manning had come out a year early? He’s a New York Jet.
What if the Arizona Cardinals had not scored two late touchdowns in the final minutes to win their last game against Atlanta in 1997? They, not the Colts, get the No. 1 pick in 1998.
What if they had gotten it wrong on draft day?
Introducing, maybe, your Los Angeles Colts.
“It was one of those decisions that define your franchise,” Irsay said.
How they anguished. New president Bill Polian got out the tapes and watched every pass Manning ever threw at Tennessee. And every pass Leaf ever threw at Washington State.
The Colts took apart the two players’ 1997 films as if they were the Zapruder tape, frame by frame, looking for clues.
They paid Bill Walsh $5,000 to study both quarterbacks and render an opinion. His findings, according to Sports Illustrated back then: Manning was more pro-ready, but the smart move would be not to spend the top pick on either, and use a later pick on Brian Griese.
The Colts had the two pass from an upright position, with no stride.
“We had both guys standing their like statues where they would throw the ball just to measure arm strength,” Irsay said. “The difference was about a yard.”
They probed, inspected, interviewed. Late in the process, Manning, sensing uncertainty, told Polian that if the Colts didn’t pick him, he would “come back to kick your ass the next 15 years.”
Drafting quarterbacks is no exact science. There were 81 names called before Joe Montana, and 198 before Tom Brady. Together, they have seven Super Bowl rings.
But one right call at No. 1 has seldom done more. The Colts present is glittering, and the future is golden.
At least until he’s gone.