April 27, 2008
Super Bowl XLMVP
MATT HASSELBECKhad been invited to the 1998 NFL scouting combine after his senior season, sothe Boston College quarterback began to wonder why he hadn't heard about traveldetails as the annual football job fair approached. When he called a leagueofficial to inquire about his itinerary, there was an awkward silence. Seemsthat Hasselbeck was the lowest-rated of the 16 invited senior quarterbacks, andafter a junior declared for the draft, Hasselbeck's invitation was rescinded.No one had bothered to tell him.
"Who's thejunior?" Hasselbeck asked.
"RyanLeaf," he was told.
Of course. Thiswas shaping up as the Peyton Manning--Ryan Leaf draft, and Hasselbeck, who wasjust hoping to be a late-round pick, knew he wasn't in Leaf's league. Now hewouldn't even be in his combine.
In fact, Leafwould be the second pick in the draft, Hasselbeck the 187th. Leaf got an $11.25million signing bonus from the Chargers, Hasselbeck $50,000 from the Packers.Yet the kid from BC was euphoric about working as Brett Favre's understudy."I was soooo not ready to play in the NFL that first year," Hasselbeckrecalled last week. "If the Packers had put me in as a rookie, I'd havefailed and all those scouts who doubted me would have said, 'He can't play.Never should have been drafted.'"
To the contrary,Hasselbeck, who was traded to the Seahawks in 2001, has been to three Pro Bowlsand one Super Bowl and is the unquestioned leader of his team. Leaf, out of theNFL for six years after failed trials with four teams, is the quarterbackscoach as well as golf coach at Division II West Texas A&M. And in thedecade since this infamous draft, not much about the science of the selectionprocess has changed.
HOW TO sum up the1998 draft 10 years later? Scary. Historic. Consider this:
• Chargersgeneral manager Bobby Beathard—the architect of two of the Redskins' titleteams—traded a pair of first-round picks and a second-rounder to move up oneslot to select Leaf. It is arguably the worst trade in NFL history.
• Tennessee,needing a franchise receiver for young QB Steve McNair, chose Kevin Dyson overRandy Moss.
• Coaches BillParcells and Jimmy Johnson ran the drafts of the Jets and the Dolphins,respectively, and made 22 picks between them. Only three of those playersbecame starters for more than one season.
• Some of thedisparities in draft position included running backs Curtis Enis at No. 5 andAhman Green at No. 76; wideouts Marcus Nash 30th and Hines Ward 92nd; defensivebacks Terry Fair 20th and Pat Tillman 226th. Jason Peter and John Avery werebonus babies, yet London Fletcher and Jeff Saturday were undrafted.
"Boy, that isa sad commentary on scouting," says Mike Lombardi, who as the Eagles'director of pro scouting that year was key to the team's having the best draftin the league: left tackle Tra Thomas, linebacker Jeremiah Trotter, defensivetackle Brandon Whiting, return man--cornerback Allen Rossum—all of whom wouldbecome regulars for six to 10 years—and linebacker Ike Reese, who would becomea special teams captain.
It is also thehuman fabric that makes a draft so unpredictable—in any year. Why was GiovanniCarmazzi drafted 134 spots ahead of Tom Brady in 2000? Why can't the Bears(Rashaan Salaam, Enis, Cedric Benson) pick a running back who can excel at thepro level? How can the slightly built and average-armed Alex Smith get pickedfirst in 2005 while the strong-armed Derek Anderson goes 213th?
"Every yearthe draft continues to teach us a lesson," says Saints coach Sean Payton,who was Philadelphia's quarterback coach in 1998. "You get excited about aguy because of his tools and projecting his ability, but so much of this islooking beneath the surface."
Says formerPackers general manager Ron Wolf, "If I batted .333 in the draft, I waspretty happy. No one bats .500. The fascinating thing about pro football is, nomatter how long you're in it, you can't predict how guys are going to handlethe pressure, the limelight, the money. Rick Mirer played in front of 80,000every week in college [for Notre Dame], and apparently he couldn't handle it.Tony Romo played in front of 8,000 [for Division I-AA Eastern Illinois], and hecan. Figure that out."
AS THE 1998 draftapproached, the job of new Colts general manager Bill Polian was to divinewhich quarterback should lead his franchise—Manning or Leaf. Polian sat alonein his office for four straight days that February, watching every snap of eachpasser's college career; by a hair, he favored Manning. He convened a meetingof his scouts; sentiment in the room was 60-40 for Leaf. Polian askedquarterback guru Bill Walsh to evaluate tape of both players; he was bullish onManning. The Colts worked out both guys; Manning threw a tighter ball and wasin much better shape. Manning had the reputation of an Eagle Scout; the Coltshad heard the party-hearty Leaf stories. And then there was Manning's visit toColts headquarters three weeks before the draft.
"I asked if Icould see Bill Polian before I left the building," Manning recalled lastweek. "So I went into his office, and Bill and coach [Jim] Mora were inthere. Those are two of the most intimidating people I have ever known, andhere I was, wanting to know what they were going to do. To be honest, I feltthey were kind of stringing me along. So I said, 'I'd really like to come hereif you want me. But if you don't, I promise you I'll come back and kick yourass for the next 15 years.'"
A surprisedPolian replied, "Maybe we ought to take you then." And deep down, heloved the quarterback's moxie.
San Diego had thethird choice in the draft, but Beathard, desperate for a quarterback, dealtthat pick plus his second-rounder (No. 33) and what turned out to be the eighthpick in the '99 draft to the Cardinals to take Leaf. "The ironicthing," says Billy Devaney, Beathard's director of player personnel and nowin a similar capacity with the Rams, "was if we didn't move up to takeLeaf, we would have picked [defensive end] Andre Wadsworth. So it would havebeen a disaster no matter what." A knee injury ended Wadsworth'sunproductive career after 36 games.
Leaf's disastrouscareer, including a passer rating of 50.0, ended with a quiet retirement inJuly 2002. He and Manning are text-messaging friends. In an e-mail reply toSI's request for an interview last week, Leaf declined to relive his nightmare."Thanks for the thought," he wrote, "but I don't have any interestin doing that. I hope you understand. Peyton's a great guy, and I always havenice things to say to and about him as well. Sincerely, Coach Leaf."
Since the 1998draft the Colts have had one starting quarterback, two coaches and one SuperBowl win. The Chargers? Six starting quarterbacks, four coaches, no SuperBowls.
IN ANOTHER year,this decision also made in 1998 would have been the worst of the draft: thefailure by every team to choose Hines Ward until the final pick of the thirdround, when the Steelers took him. Ward had played high school and collegefootball without anyone else knowing that he had no anterior cruciate ligamentin his left knee, the result of a bike accident when he was nine. The discoverywas made during a physical at the combine. He visited Tampa Bay three timesbefore the draft, but the Bucs decided that the risk of injury was too high.What's more, after playing running back, kick returner and quarterback in hisfirst two seasons at Georgia, Ward played wide receiver during his final twoseasons. "The scouts thought I was a jack-of-all-trades, master ofnone," he said. "That hurt me. That plus the ACL, which was never afactor until that day." Ward was the 15th wideout drafted in '98, the onewho has since caught 719 passes for 8,737 yards.
"There isonly one way to do this job," says Tom Donahoe, who drafted Ward asPittsburgh's director of football operations at the time. "You have to putthe tape on and watch play after play, to see if the guy can play football.Hines proved he could play without the ACL, and play at a high level, and runaway from corners. He was a victim of what still plagues a lot of players 10years later—a good player, but [after the season] people start poking holes inhim.
"The processis not getting better," Donahoe adds. "There'd be fewer mistakes if theleague drafted at the end of January and eliminated all those workouts and mostof those player interviews, which are a waste because they're so scripted. Turnthe tape on. Can the guy play or not?"
One more thingabout scouting that drives players crazy: upside.
"What killedme," says Manning, "was when I'd see the so-called unnamed executivequoted as saying, 'Leaf has upside, Manning doesn't.' How'd you like to be 21or 22, and you've already peaked. Does that make any sense?"
This year's"low-upside" player at the top of the draft is Virginia's Chris Long,who projects as a 4--3 defensive end or a 3--4 outside linebacker. Word on thestreet is that Long will have trouble getting around quicker tackles. "Mybelief is I'll still be getting better in my 10th [season]," says Long,"but I keep hearing words like ceiling and maxed out. Where do they comefrom?"
IN THE spring of2002 Hasselbeck and Trent Dilfer were competing for the Seahawks' starting jobwhen a new face walked into the quarterbacks meeting room. It was Leaf. Takingone last stab at reviving his career, he had signed with Seattle. The man who'dbumped Hasselbeck from the combine was going to compete for a job with theSeahawks.
"It was justweird," Hasselbeck says. "He was a nice guy. I just thought he was oneof those guys who figured, you know, take a year, get coached by Mike Holmgren,save your career. But one day he didn't come. He retired. He justdisappeared."
Manning told Polian and Mora that if the Colts didn'tdraft him, "I'll come back and KICK YOUR ASS for the next 15years."
NOW ON SI.COM
SPORTS IN REAL TIME. ALL THE TIME. ALL FREE.
Get up-to-the-minute information and analysis as 12SI.com writers in nine NFL cities weigh in throughout the draftproceedings.
SI repicked the top 30 players of the 1998 draft basedon how they ultimately performed as pros. No matter which way you slice it,Peyton Manning was still the right choice at No. 1
1 Peyton Manning, QB Drafted by Colts (1st overall)One Super Bowl ring, two-time league MVP, eight Pro Bowls. Any questions?
2 Randy Moss (above), WR Vikings (21) Only predraftquestion was character-related. He acted up for two seasons—in Oakland
3 Matt Hasselbeck, QB Packers (187) Three Pro Bowls,one NFC title—not bad for a guy who wasn't even invited to the combine
4 Hines Ward, WR Steelers (92) Among the WRs draftedbefore him: Brian Alford, E.G. Green, Jammi German, Larry Shannon ... who?
5 Alan Faneca, G Steelers (26) Highest-paid guard inNFL history has made seven straight Pro Bowl appearances
6 Olin Kreutz, C Bears (64) Unquestioned team leaderand Chicago's best offensive lineman of this decade
7 Fred Taylor, RB Jaguars (9) Has quietly moved towithin 521 yards of O.J. Simpson at No. 17 on the alltime rushing list
8 Tra Thomas, T Eagles (11) What more can you ask of aplayer who has made 149 regular-season starts in 10 years?
9 Leonard Little, DE Rams (65) Over his last sevenseasons, he had 68 1/2 sacks and 29 forced fumbles
10 Jamal Williams*, DT Chargers Most consistent nosetackle in the game over the last five years
11 Matt Birk, C Vikings (173) More Pro Bowls in thisdecade—six—than any other center in the NFL
12 London Fletcher‚Ä†, LB Rams Leader of Redskinsdefense has made 144 regular-season starts for three teams
13 Flozell Adams, T Cowboys (38) Took a few years todevelop but now a premier blocker who protects his QB's blind side
14 Jeff Saturday‚Ä†, C Ravens Manning's snapper has twovery important assets: brains and sound technique
15 Samari Rolle, CB Titans (46) Shutdown corner has 28career interceptions, including an AFC-high seven in 2000
16 Greg Ellis, DE-LB Cowboys (8) Mastered twopositions before injuring Achilles, then was 2007 Comeback Player of theYear
17 Keith Brooking, LB Falcons (12) Defensive leaderthrough four coaching administrations in Atlanta
18 Jeremiah Trotter, LB Eagles (72) Steady, punishinginside linebacker built in the mold of Harry Carson
19 Ahman Green, RB Seahawks (76) Has six 1,000-yardseasons and a 4.5-yard career average per carry
20 Grant Wistrom, DE Rams (6) Finished nine-yearcareer with 53 sacks—and he could play the run too
21 Brian Griese, QB Broncos (91) Hasn't done muchlately, but won the 2000 NFL passing title with 102.9 rating
22 Takeo Spikes, LB Bengals (13) Nine-year starter forthree teams was at his best for bad Cincinnati teams
23 Donovin Darius, S Jaguars (25) Big hitter played inanonymity in Jacksonville for nine years
24 Patrick Surtain, CB Dolphins (44) Strong all-aroundcorner missed only five games in 10 years because of injury
25 Benji Olson, G Titans (139) Strong, silentnine-year starter for road-grading Tennessee line
26 Jeremy Newberry, C 49ers (58) Only center ever toanchor offensive line for the Niners and their cross-bay rivals, theRaiders
27 Charles Woodson, CB Raiders (4) Resuscitated careerin Green Bay after wasting talents for eight years in Oakland
28 Steve McKinney, G Colts (93) Instant impact:started 124 of first 128 NFL regular-season games
29 Jason Fabini, T Jets (111) Though slow afoot, wasinstalled as the starting right tackle in New York from Day One
30 Vonnie Holliday, DL Packers (19) Versatile288-pounder is a great run stopper and averages 5.1 sacks per year
* Supplemental draft pick, June 1998. Chargerssurrendered second-round pick in 1999 draft to pick Williams.
‚Ä† Undrafted college free agent.