Manning or Leaf?
Leaf or Manning?
It was the biggest question debated between football fans and collectors leading up to, and even months after, the 1998 NFL Draft.
Sure, we know how the story ends. Peyton Manning ended up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and won two Super Bowls. Ryan Leaf did not come anywhere near living up to the expectations the football world placed on his shoulders. Many consider him one of the biggest busts in NFL draft history.
But forget what they did on the field for a moment, and let’s look at it from a hobby perspective. Ryan Leaf was, at the time, one of the best things that ever happened to the football card market. In fact, you could even make the argument that Leaf was a big factor in saving the football card market that year.
To look back now, a statement like that seems laughable. At the time, however, it was the real truth.
There is no doubt that quarterbacks have always driven the football card market. For serious collectors, there is more focus on quarterbacks than on any other position in any other sport. As collectors, we often equate rookie card years with the great quarterbacks, despite the other great players in that particular year’s rookie card class. The 1984 Topps NFL set is known mostly for the rookie cards of John Elway and Dan Marino. And then collectors might say that Eric Dickerson is in this set too, as is Darrell Green.
Lean Years In ’96 And ’97
When the excitement began for Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf, the hobby was coming off a pair of lean rookie card years. That doesn’t mean there weren’t great players. In fact, three of the first 13 picks in the 1997 draft are Hall of Famers. But for the sports card manufacturers, convincing hobby distributors and retail giants to roll the dice on a rookie class led by offensive linemen Orlando Pace and Walter Jones, and some defensive studs like Shawn Springs and Peter Boulware, was a tough sell. Pace and Jones ended up in the Hall of Fame, as did tight end Tony Gonzalez.
The players driving the rookie card class that year were running backs Warrick Dunn, Antowain Smith and Tiki Barber. The only quarterback of note was Jake Plummer of the Arizona Cardinals, a second round draft pick. Pinnacle’s most premium football card set of the 1997 season was Totally Certified Football, the first football set with ever card serial-numbered. Plummer was omitted from the set because their photo department did not like the available photo selection of the Cardinals rookie.
The 1997 NFL Draft had only one quarterback picked in the first round. Jim Druckenmiller was drafted 26th overall by the San Francisco 49ers out of Virginia Tech. Druckenmiller was an NFL bust. He passed for 239 career yards and had a 29.2 passer rating. He had one TD pass and four interceptions. Druckenmiller did, however, have a decent 2001 season with the Memphis Maniax of the XFL, but by that time his rookie cards had already been forever cemented as commons.
The 1996 draft had no quarterbacks picked in the first round, although there were some big name wide receivers that helped drive football card sales. Keyshawn Johnson, who appeared at the 1996 National as a spokesman for Classic, was picked first overall. Marvin Harrison, Terry Glenn and Terrell Owens were in that rookie class, as was Eddie George.
So when the 1998 NFL Draft arrived, the football card market was starved for franchise quarterbacks. With Manning and Leaf, the projections were that two were available. The football card industry had taken hard hits in 1996 and 1997. The entire industry was struggling with declining sales, and product proliferation was particularly affecting the NFL market. Pinnacle declared bankruptcy in June of 1998, taking one of the biggest players out of the market.
The football card market needed more than a hot rookie. It needed mainstream water cooler talk regarding the rookie class. Manning and Leaf provided that. It sparked the great debate that lasted for months before the draft, and after the draft. Who would go first? Who would be better? Who would be in a better situation to succeed?
The mainstream interest in the draft was the highest the NFL had seen since 1983, when quarterbacks John Elway, Todd Blackledge, Jim Kelly, Tony Eason, Ken O’Brien and Dan Marino all went in the first round.
Manning-Ryan Debate Fuels Debate
In 1998, the hobby also got a boost from Shop at Home TV, which had just purchased NFL football card manufacturer Collector’s Edge. Not only did Manning and Leaf make Collector’s Edge a major player in the football card market that year, but the company was also able to turn around specialty cards that drove football card sales on Shop at Home. Collector’s Edge produced Draft Day cards of Leaf and Manning with swatches of Draft Day-worn jersey.
Shop at Home would pair of boxes of cards in 1998 with a free Manning or Leaf card, and football card sales increased dramatically. The entire hobby benefitted from the promotion, as with pitch man Don West extolling the greatness of Manning and Leaf, the entire football card market was getting a nightly infomercial on television.
Without Leaf in the equation, there would not have been this excitement. Fans, sports talk radio hosts and the football card market were given a gift with the hype around the Manning-Leaf debate.
While investors who sunk money into Leaf cards lost, everyone else won. Most football card products are planned and sold into the market before the start of the season. Leaf and Manning both struggled as rookies, but that was expected by many. What wasn’t expected were the behavioral issues and lack of commitment that Leaf became known for.
Through the 1998 collecting season, Leaf was not yet considered a bust. But by that time, it did not matter. Collectors were jumping on the bandwagon of Minnesota Vikings rookie Randy Moss, who had dropped to 21st overall. Moss caught three touchdown passes in Dallas in the Thanksgiving Day game that year, vaulting him to the top of every hot list in the hobby.
Detroit, a driver in the sports card market, had fallen in love with rookie quarterback Charlie Batch and his rookie cards became hot. Charles Woodson, the two-way Heisman Trophy winner from Michigan, also had strong regional sales.
In other words, once the season started, there was enough excitement in that 1998 rookie card class to make collectors forget about the Leaf speculation.
Every draft and rookie card class will have stars who live up to their expectations, busts, and even some undrafted players who emerge as Pro Bowlers. The next time you hear a collector compare an NFL bust to Ryan Leaf, don’t forget that Leaf had a role in saving the market in 1998.