Note: This excerpt from "The Game Plan: The Art of Building a Winning Football Team" by Bill Polian with Vic Carucci is printed with the permission of Triumph Books. For more information, please visit www.triumphbooks.com/BillPolian.
The closer we got to the draft, the louder the "noise"-- opinions from draft media analysts far and wide -- became, until it reached a crescendo. You were hearing all of the negatives about Peyton Manning: "He's a product of the system...He's not a good athlete ... He has a weak arm ... He can't win the big one." On the contrary, you were hearing nothing but accolades for Ryan Leaf: "He's a natural thrower ... He has a cannon arm ... He can make people miss when he runs ... He's the second coming of Roger Staubach."
Most of that was in the media and largely, I'm sure, fueled by Leigh Steinberg, who was a master at getting favorable publicity for his clients. I reminded myself and others in the building, "Tune out the noise! Tune out the noise!" I even delivered the same message in my public comments, saying, "We are going to ignore the noise; it's not part of the equation. We are going to make the decision based on what we believe to be sound football reasons."
Yet, there I was, on a Sunday, watching the tape of Peyton's throws and hearing all of that "noise" in my head: "He doesn't have a strong arm ... He can't make the deep throws ..." I began to focus on every pass in his career that traveled more than 40 yards and what I found out was that, once the ball got beyond 60 yards, he started losing accuracy.
The next morning, I got Tom Moore and Bruce Arians together, and said, "I think you have a ceiling on Manning's arm at about 60 yards."
They both look at me as if I were crazy. I could see in their eyes that they were thinking, He's lost it. We're working with a guy who has lost his marbles and he's in charge of the franchise! Tom then looked up and said, dryly, "Well, then, Bill, we'll be sure not to throw any passes over 59 yards."
In late March/early April, we arranged a private workout with Peyton at Tennessee. Tom has an arm-strength drill whereby he stands the quarterback on the goal line and has a receiver facing him five yards away. The quarterback has to throw to the receiver using only his arm; he isn't allowed to step into his throw or use his feet in any way. And after each throw, the receiver moves back in 5-yard increments until he eventually reaches the 50-yard line.
By the time the receiver gets to the 50, you have a pretty good idea of whether the quarterback has a strong arm or not because he isn't putting anything else physically into his throws -- and he already has thrown nine passes that way.
Tom put Peyton through the arm-strength drill, and his pass to the 50-yard line was on a rope. Peyton's arm was among the strongest I have seen. It maybe was not quite as strong as Jim Kelly's, but certainly strong enough. Interestingly, Peyton threw what we call a "heavy ball," meaning it has a lot of rotation on it, which was quite interesting because guys with weaker arms usually don't throw a heavy ball. When you catch a heavy ball, your hands sting because it comes out with some heat on it.
Peyton had a slam-dunk workout, as good as you could have. Not that workouts are everything, but that one served as fairly solid evidence that all of the perceived negatives -- that he was a bad athlete, that he had a weak arm, etc. -- were untrue.
Naturally, Phillip Fulmer, Tennessee's football coach at the time, told us nothing but the most glowing things about Peyton. He said Peyton was as prepared as any coach when the Volunteers did their game planning, that he knew as much about the upcoming opponent as any coach, that he studied film voraciously. Phillip gave us a verbal picture of what we would literally see from Peyton Manning for the next 14 years.
The next day, we went to Washington State to work out Ryan Leaf. There were actually two workouts scheduled with him -- ours and one with the San Diego Chargers, who had the second overall pick.
The Chargers had been scheduled to go first, and Bobby Beathard, their general manager at the time, was walking out to the parking lot of Martin Stadium as we were walking in. Bobby smiled and said something to me like, "This guy is head and shoulders above Peyton Manning, no question about it. This was the greatest workout I have ever seen."
I knew he was joking because he had that Bobby Beathard twinkle in his eye. I laughed and said, "Okay, but we'll still work him out."
"If you're interested in trading down, give me a call."
"Okay, fair enough."
We laughed a little more and then I walked into the stadium with our group. The first thing that caught my eye was that, during the measurement and weight-lifting segments indoors, Ryan was wearing sweatpants that he never took off, even after the session began. The Washington State coaches orchestrated the entire workout; we weren't able to conduct it ourselves as we had in Tennessee.
Ryan went through all of the standard throwing drills and did okay, not great. I remember turning to Tom Moore and saying, "His arm is not as strong as Peyton's."
"I think you're right," Tom said.
Ryan didn't drive the ball quite as well as Peyton did, which, frankly, was what showed up on tape and put the lie to this idea that there was this huge gulf physically between them. And I presumed the reason Ryan wouldn't take his sweatpants off was because he didn't want us to see what kind of shape he was in.
After the workout, we met with Ryan and Mike Price, the Washington State head coach at the time. Jim Mora asked Ryan why he had missed the meeting with us at the combine, and I thought he was being honest when he said he confused it with another appointment, or something like that. It was a plausible answer.
It should be noted that, 16 years later, Steinberg wrote in his book, "The Agent", that he suggested to Ryan to intentionally skip his meeting with us in order to discourage us from selecting him, thus allowing him to go to where Leigh said he preferred to play: San Diego.
Leigh also wrote that he cleared the idea with Bobby Beathard so the Chargers' GM wouldn't question Ryan's reliability, and added that Bobby "went along with the ruse." I seriously doubt that, because of my conversation with Bobby in the parking lot of Martin Stadium. Bobby, of course, has subsequently said that he was never approached or involved in any discussions designed to bring Ryan to the Chargers.
"Now, you know Ryan," Jim Mora said, "May 10th is the day that you can come in to work out with us, and if we draft you, we expect you there."
"Well, Coach, I can't make it," Ryan said.
Everybody's head snapped back, and that included Coach Price, who I am sure was not aware of anything that would keep his former quarterback from being on time for his first NFL practice.
"Why not?" Jim asked.
"My buddies and I have planned a trip for a year to Las Vegas, and we have to go on this trip. It's kind of a celebration of the draft and everything, and I will be in probably around the 15th of May."
That wasn't the answer any of us wanted to hear.
About a week before the draft, Peyton's father, Archie Manning -- a quarterbacking icon himself who played for the Saints, Oilers, and Vikings -- called me and said, "Do you have any idea when you are going to make a decision?
"Archie, I learned a long time ago from George Young, who said, 'Make no decision before it's time,'" I said. "I tend to be really slow on these things anyway. I want to dot every i and cross every t. I certainly will let you know before Draft Day, that's for sure."
I'm not sure Archie was thrilled with that, although, as always, he was polite.
Two days later, while at our facility to go through one last piece of physical data that our doctors wanted, Peyton popped into my office for a quick chat.
"You said you are going to make a decision soon before the draft," he said. "When are you going to make it?"
"I don't know," I said. "I'm sort of taking my time. I've still got to sit down with our owner. I'm about 90 percent there, but I'm not a quick decision maker, especially not when it comes to a decision with this import."
"Well, look, I have to know whether to go to New York or not," he said. "I'm scheduled to be in New York on Thursday."
"Okay, fair enough. I will let you know before you go to New York what the decision is. But please, please give me your word that you don't let it out because it's very important to Mr. Irsay that he be there and be a part of the process, and that's his right."
"Yes, you can count on me, don't worry about that. But I need to know."
"I understand and you have my word. I will call you before you leave for New York."
As he got up to leave, he turned to me and he said, "Listen, I just want to leave you with this one thought: if you draft me, I promise we will win a championship. And if you don't, I promise I will come back and kick your ass."
The next day, Jim Mora and I met and I said, "Where are you with the quarterbacks?"
"I'm with Peyton," he said.
"I'm the same way. If we believe in all the things that we both think are important for a winning football team, then it's Peyton."
"Yeah, you're right."
After that, I met with Jim Irsay.
"What's your decision?" he said.
"The decision is unanimous," I said. "It's Peyton."
Jim never let on who he wanted. I think it was Peyton, but to his credit, he never interfered with the process.
"What's the upside and the downside with both of them?" he asked.
"Here's the issue: I can't tell you if either of these guys is going to win a Super Bowl or become a Hall of Famer. We are just trying to find a quarterback that we can win with. But I'll tell you this: If we bust out with Leaf, we have busted out everything. If he busts out, we've lost. If we are wrong on Peyton Manning, the worst we have is Bernie Kosar -- a really good, winning quarterback."
So much for my scouting acumen.
I can't say that I envisioned everything that Peyton Manning would become, but after you have been through this process, which you trust, everything pointed to him. You hoped that he would become half of what he became, but there was no question that he would be a winning quarterback in the National Football League.