A Devastating Victory

Colts Fans Rejoice
Colts Fans Rejoice

I am looking forward to a 15 year career, a couple of trips to the Super Bowl, and a parade through downtown San Diego.”  ~Ryan Leaf

Coaches will always say it’s about the “W”.  Al Davis says “Just win, baby.”  Players say their passion for winning is only surpassed by their hatred of losing.  We have all heard about devastating losses.  The Davis’ Oakland Raiders suffered a devastating loss at the hands of Tampa Bay in the Super Bowl and have never recovered. 

But when does a win become a bad thing?  When does being on the right side of the scoreboard turn out to be a franchise-altering event?

Answer:  The Draft.  The draft fills your roster with new, fresh talent that the coaching staff gets to mold into the next generation of winners is the reason.  In all of the three major sports (let’s exclude hockey from the list because nobody cares), the draft order is based on reverse order in the standings.  Basically, the worse you are, the better your draft position will be.  Lose the most games in the league, and you will be drafting first, and theoretically getting the best players available in each round, barring trades and other wheelings and dealings.  The NBA has a lottery system for all teams that fail to make the playoffs, giving the worst team and the 17thbest team a chance at selecting as Numero Uno.  The chances aren’t equal, as the worst team has a much better probability of nabbing the top spot, but basketball is not my focus here.   

The NFL has a worst-to-best reverse order draft.  Tiebreakers determine order when overall record cannot by itself.  A 2-14 team compared to a 4-12 team would reveal little difference in talent and competiveness, as divisions the teams play in differ greatly across the league.  But these teams might be selecting 3 or 4 spots apart, so getting those losses in makes a big difference in the quality of players they get a chance to select.

As a concession, some drafts are not stratified much, meaning that there is not much disparity between the top 3-5 players.  But some offer a can’t-miss talent at the top, and while teams do not have a the power of hindsight to see how good their draft pick will be, many times it is fairly evident who will have the better career.  Another concession is needed, as some franchises require offensive line help like Jake Long (Miami 2008), some need a pass rusher like Mario Williams (Houston 2006), and others need a quarterback like Peyton Manning (Indianapolis 1998). 

It is this last area where the Devastating Victory comes into play.  Let’s journey back to October 27, 1997 to illustrate the damaging effects a win could have on a franchise…

The lowly Indianapolis Colts (0-7) traveled to sunny San Diego to take on the mediocre Chargers (3-4).  Both franchises had recently experienced playoff success, as the Chargers were in the Super Bowl after the 1994 season and the Colts in the AFC championship the following year.  Neither resembled those squads just a couple of seasons later. 

The Chargers jumped all over the visiting Colts, as Greg Davis kicked 4 field goals (45, 35, 34, and 31) and San Diego took a 12-0 lead going into the half.  Gary Brown plowed in from one yard out to push the score to 19-0 Bolts as Davis tacked on the extra point in the 3rd.  Indy then recovered as QB Paul Justin tossed a 36 yard pass to Sean Dawkins, but failed to convert on the 2-point conversion, making the tally 19-6 Chargers.

Not to be outdone, Stan “Chipmunk Cheeks” Humphries found Frank Hartley for a 2 yard touchdown and Davis banged home his second 45 yard field goal to start the 4thquarter, pushing the Chargers up 29-6.  The Colts were not out of it yet despite this large margin.  Justin again fired a touchdown pass, this time hooking up with Aaron Bailey from 10 yards out to make it 29-13. 

The Indianapolis special teams came up with a huge play on a blocked field goal, as Ray McElroy raced to the end zone to make it 29-19 pending the 2-point try.  The pass again was no good and the Colts would regret trying for 2 earlier, now being down by two possessions.  Their onside kick was returned for a touchdown by future Pro Bowler Rodney Harrison to put the game out of reach for good, 35-19.

If you were a Chargers fan, you were quite happy to come away with a win here.  That victory pushed your record to 4-4, 2 games behind the Chiefs (6-2) and 3 games back of division-leading Denver (7-1), putting your team at least in a position to compete for the playoffs.  The second half of the 1997 season would not be so kind, as the Chiefs ended up winning the division at 13-3, and the Broncos took a wild card spot at 12-4 and eventually won the Super Bowl over the Packers.  San Diego ?  Yeah, they went 0-8 down the stretch and finished at 4-12, never again finding the win column after beating the Colts. 

Okay, so why is this a Devastating Victory?  It didn’t cost them a playoff game or even a playoff spot.  But recall the draft that comes every April, and its aforementioned reverse draft order.  The Colts, with this loss, fell to 0-8.  They recovered in the second half and went 3-5 to round out a disappointing season at 3-13 (they themselves could have had a Devastating Victory when they edged Green Bay 41-38 with a late FG).  Indy took the overall number one pick in the draft thanks to the game described above and the Chargers were due to select third behind the Colts and the Arizona Cardinals.

Now, there were two clear choices coming out of college that year.  The Chargers were determined to be in the top two and threw a veritable fortune of draft picks at the Cardinals.  They swapped two future first round picks, a second round pick, and two players (Patrick Sapp and Eric Metcalf) with Arizona in exchange for that coveted second overall selection.  Whomever the Colts selected really didn’t matter;  the Chargers were insuring themselves of getting what appeared at the time to be pick 1B to the Colts’ 1A. 

Who were the two uber-prospects?  Peyton Manning was a phenomenal performer with the Tennessee Volunteers and was destined to follow in his father Archie’s tracks by playing on Sundays.  Manning was a mature player who stayed around for his senior year because he loved the school.  He seemed like the logical #1 draft pick.  But there was this other guy out of Washington State , the same school that had produced Drew Bledsoe not 5 years earlier.  Bledsoe had led the lowly (at the time) Patriots to the Super Bowl after the 1996 season.  This guy was possibly better than Manning, with a rocket arm, and a big body.  He gave Michigan all they wanted in the Rose Bowl that winter, but came up short.  Michigan shared the National Title that year with Nebraska , who soundly beat Tennessee and that Manning dude in the Orange Bowl.

Who is this masked man?  Who could claim such accolades as a can’t-miss prospect?  That guy’s name is Ryan Leaf.  Yes, that Ryan Leaf.  The quarterback-compared-to-as-sure-of-a-first-ballot-Hall-Of-Famer-the-NFL-has-ever-seen Ryan Leaf. 

It seems inconceivable now that Colts GM Bill Polian would even consider Leaf over Manning, but the idea was that maybe Manning was already maxed out in his abilities and Leaf (only a junior) had the higher ceiling and more potential.  Polian said later that the choice was based on maturity and experience and they chose Manning.  San Diego then gobbled up Leaf and inked him to a 4 year, $31.25 million contract, complete with the largest rookie signing bonus thereto offered–$11.25 million.

What came afterwards is common knowledge to anyone who knows sports.  Manning has turned in one of the more remarkable careers in NFL history, and he still isn’t done.  Leaf lasted just 4 seasons and only won 4 games as a starter.  Manning’s affable, down-to-earth, even hickish appeal has earned him major endorsements.  Leaf’s inability to get along with the media types and consistently dreadful performance on the field earned him a pink slip. 

Peyton Manning

173 games/starts, 3749-5850 (64.1%), 44,574 yards, 325 TD, 165 INT

Ryan Leaf

25 games/21 starts, 317-655 (48.4%), 3,666 yards, 14 TD, 36 INT  

It is anyone’s guess what San Diego’s front office would have done had they lost instead of won against Indianapolis in the Devastating Victory Game.  Perhaps they were enamored enough with Leaf to pass on Manning and take the Washington State product.  But if the information that the Colts had in front of them was the same as the Chargers had and judging by the excellent drafts the Chargers have had in subsequent years, one would be led to believe they would have picked Manning over Leaf.  

It might be noted that San Diego did recover from this debacle.  They played for the AFC title just last year and had arguably the best team in the league in 2006.  I chalk this up to a good front office and LaDainian Tomlinson.  Some franchises aren’t as lucky.  Also of note is the success the Colts have had with Manning at the helm, including a Super Bowl victory concluding the 2006 season. 

What’s my tie-in, you might ask?  My favorite NFL team has been and always will be the Kansas City Chiefs.  Mired in the middle of a 1-10 season, the Chiefs had to go and beat the Raiders last week.  The key play?  A Maurice Leggett 67 yard fumble return of a botched fake FG attempt with Na-Polish Dynamite himself, Sebastian Janikowski, running an option, eerily similar special teams touchdown to Ray McElroy’s play 11 years ago.

Winning that game only proved what a disaster the Raiders are, but it also potentially could be a Devastating Victory for the franchise as they slipped out of a comfortable place in the loss column.  In the tanking race that seemingly annually involves the hapless Detroit Lions, the Bengals, Rams, and my Chiefs all had an opportunity to be just bad enough to claim the top spot in the draft.  I have my doubts as to whether there’s a Peyton Manning-Ryan Leaf dynamic in the 2009 draft class, so this might be a pointless observation.

And in utter conclusion…What’s Ryan Leaf up to?  Glad you asked.  Married and divorced, he took a job as quarterbacks coach at West Texas A&M (also served as golf coach?) in 2006.  Unfortunately, Leaf’s failure in the NFL followed him to his coaching career, as he resigned amidst allegations he asked a player for a “pill”.

Hey, at least you look like Bill Paxton.  So you have that going for you…which is nice.

~Greg

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~ by goetgre on December 5, 2008.

One Response to “A Devastating Victory”

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