Monday, February 20, 2006

"Ryan Leaf": Not much of QB,
but one hell of a metaphor

Call me 'the Ryan Leaf of online NFL commentary'

Even the most ignorant observer (present and accounted for!) can give a car-by-car description of the train derailment that was Ryan Leaf's brief NFL career: Crummy quarterback. Shitty teammate. Historic head case. All-around bad citizen. But in the three-plus years since he was kicked ass-first out of the league, Ryan Leaf, The Man, has given way to "Ryan Leaf," The Metaphor. And as such, Leaf has attained the immortality, versatility and durability that eluded him all those years he had his enormous head jammed into a helmet.

So handy is Leaf, The Metaphor, however, that people are now sticking it in places where it doesn't belong, and in doing so are cheapening one of the most precious additions our language has seen in the past half-century. "Ryan Leaf," a name that once stank richly of Greek tragedy and burnt toast, is in danger of becoming just another snarky synonym for "disappointing." And what a truly Ryan Leaf development that would be.

This comes to mind not because Leaf, The Man, has been in the news of late, but because Leaf, The Metaphor, has been kicking poor Darko Milicic in the crotch.

Milicic, a 7-foot center/forward from Serbia, was picked No. 2 overall by the Detroit Pistons in the 2003 NBA draft. Since joining the Pistons, Milicic has played somewhere between sparingly and not at all, and last week Detroit traded him to Orlando for Kelvin Cato and change. That was enough for Bob Cook of -- the thinking man's! -- to declare that Milicic appears "destined to be remembered as the Ryan Leaf of the NBA." Cook's piece, posted Friday, appears under a headline asserting, tautologically, "Similarities between ex-Piston and former NFL QB are eerily similar." Cook explains the eerily similar similarities thus:
"Like Leaf, Milicic was picked No. 2 behind a highly hyped No. 1. Like Leaf, Milicic was seen by many pundits -- and even those within his sport -- as having the potential to be perhaps even better someday than that highly hyped No. 1. Like Leaf, Milicic quickly got exposed as not ready for prime time, and as a result his name became a walking punch line."
And, really, that's the extent of it. Leaf and Milicic were both drafted No. 2 behind future superstars (in Leaf's case, Peyton Manning; in Milicic's, LeBron James). Both of them were also -- and let's count the qualifiers in this sentence -- "seen by many ... as having the potential to be perhaps even better someday" than the dudes who went No. 1. And both are not stars now.

There's just one minor, gaping hole in the "logic" behind the comparison. Leaf was drafted to be the savior of a destitute team, but he flopped on the field, poisoned the locker room and scarred the franchise for years. Milicic, meanwhile, was drafted by a team that didn't need him and didn't play him as a rookie because it was already a contender and was so loaded with talent that it promptly won two Eastern Conference championships and an NBA title. Milicic is indeed reminiscent of a certain San Diego quarterback, just not the one lazy writers like Cook would prefer. Darko Milicic is not the Ryan Leaf of the NBA. Darko Milicic is the Philip Rivers of the NBA.

Leaf and Rivers were both high-first-round picks who went to the San Diego Chargers. Leaf began his rookie year as the starting quarterback, put together a truly hideous season and lost his job to the immortal Craig Whelihan. Rivers arrived as the backup, just in time to watch Drew Brees become an elite quarterback ahead of him on the depth chart. The Chargers didn't need Rivers, so he sat for two years, and it appeared he would be traded this offseason. However, Brees got his throwing arm torn off in the 2005 season finale against Denver, and now Rivers seems destined to stay in San Diego -- either as the starter or in his familiar role as the spare tire on the Schottenheimer jalopy. In an eerily similar similarity to Rivers, the Pistons parked Milicic on the bench because they already had a team full of all-stars, and there he stayed until the trade. Maybe if Tayshaun Prince had ripped his labrum, too, we wouldn't be having this conversation.

Cook is hardly alone in firing the Ryan Leaf Cannon at Milicic. For an analysis typical of what's floating around out there, we turn to the Record of Stockton, Calif.:
The Detroit Pistons finally traded Ryan Leaf ... er, Darko Milicic on Wednesday. Joe Dumars manned up and admitted that passing on Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade was a major mistake by shipping Darko and Carlos Arroyo to Disney World for Kelvin Cato and a protected first-round pick. Imagine this Pistons team with one of the aforementioned studs. They'd be on an 80-win pace.
That's the best you can do? The Pistons are 42-9 and they're in a slump. They lead the Eastern Conference by 10 games. The only team in the NBA even close to them is the Dallas Mavericks, whom I like to think Cook would call "the Indianapolis Colts of the NBA." The Pistons are on a pace for 68 wins, which would tie them for the fourth-most ever in an 82-game season, and you're going to wag your finger at them for not being 50-1? Further, to assume that the Pistons would be even better with, say, Carmelo Anthony is something of a reach. When a team is 42-9, it means that team has the right pieces in the right places. Dumars and Larry Brown knew that when they decided to use the No. 2 pick on a developmental project like Milicic rather than a superstar like Anthony. You put Carmelo Anthony on the Pistons, he's going to expect the offense to run through him. He isn't going to want to share the ball with Rip Hamilton, or Chauncey Billups, or the Wallace brothers -- you know, the guys who won the All-Star Game on Sunday night. Nike ain't paying him all that money to be no team player. And if you ask him to be, he just might go Ryan Leaf on you.

The Darko = Ryan equation breaks down every time you try to prove it. Leaf's teammates hated him and rejoiced after he was cut. Milicic's teammates, on the other hand, praised him after he was traded. Their only complaint was that he would let frustration get the better of him when he felt he wasn't being given an opportunity. Rasheed Wallace -- Rasheed Wallace! -- said: "Everyone thinks he's a bust and makes jokes about him. ... But the joke is going to be on them."

And that's the word we're really talking about here: bust. Is Darko Milicic a bust? Well, is Philip Rivers a bust? There's no way to tell, because neither player has had the opportunity to show what he can do. Milicic will now get that opportunity in Orlando. And he may very well fail. He may very well end up a bust after all. But being a bust does not make a player Ryan Leaf. Immediately after drawing comparisons between Milicic and Leaf, Cook erased them, though he probably didn't even know he was doing it:
"To be fair, Milicic, unlike Leaf, has not been known to berate or scream at reporters, heckling fans and his own teammates. He’s never been accused of being a malingerer. And fans have embraced him, rather than turned on him."
It's one thing to be a bust, which Darko Milicic might be. It's one thing to be a wasted pick, which he also might be. But if you don't scream at reporters, if you don't attack fans, if you don't get called lazy or a fat-ass or a cancer or a jake, then you are not Ryan Leaf. Being untalented does not make you "Ryan Leaf." Being a bad fit on a good team does not make you "Ryan Leaf." Being overrated, overpaid or overhyped does not make you "Ryan Leaf."

I'm always willing to help out writers who run dry on imagination or creativity. So here's a list of highly drafted NFL quarterbacks who turned out to be lousy players but weren't bad people: David Klingler, Heath Shuler, Rick Mirer, Andre Ware. The next time you come across a guy who can't get it done on the field (or at least hasn't gotten it done so far) but who isn't a fruitcake or a cancer in the locker room, try one of these names instead. Save "Ryan Leaf, The Metaphor" for the truly deserving. Or better yet, come up with your own alternatives.

Like ... "Alex Smith, the Kwame Brown of the NFL." Or is it the other way around?

1 comment:

Rich Lanthier said...

Excellent article Paul! Lots of good logic and a great read. I didn't even know that Milicic was traded. THat is pretty wild... I wonder why detroit didn't just sell that pick if they didn't want it. Hmm, suppose that isn't legal?