Experts vs Media: A Retrospective

Peter King revisits the big draft question of 25 years ago, and in doing so, underlines my point about the mainstream media. Which is, namely, never believe anything it tells you.

A quarter-century ago this week … A couple of months before the draft in 1998, I took a VHS tape with 30 to 35 plays each of Tennessee QB Peyton Manning and Washington State QB Ryan Leaf, the presumptive top two picks in the draft, around the country to show six people and to ask: Who would you pick among these two players? (VHS qualified as high-tech in 1998.) My panel of experts: Hall of Fame coach/QB guru Sid Gillman, retired Niners coach Bill Walsh, Giants QB Phil Simms, Denver coach Mike Shanahan, Tampa Bay director of player personnel Jerry Angelo and UCLA coach Bob Toledo (who’d faced both players).

There was some debate over who should go first that year. ESPN published a long magazine story opining the easy pick was Leaf. “Come 2018, Ryan Leaf, not Manning, will be strutting up to a podium in Canton,” was one line from that story, one of the great wish-we-had-that-back lines ever. ESPN wasn’t the only one to go all-in on Leaf. But I sat with each expert and asked the question.

The vote: Manning 6, Leaf 0. “Now this is a pro quarterback,” the 86-year-old Gillman said in his Carlsbad, Calif., home. “Is that a beautiful throw, or is that a beautiful throw? I’d draft this kid in a second.” The iconoclastic Walsh favored Manning over Leaf, but also said he’d pick another position first in the draft, then chose Brian Griese in the second round.

When I wrote the story in early April, I remember a few stories like the ESPN one, or ones quoting anonymous scouts or GMs saying they’d pick Leaf. I wondered if I’d picked the wrong guys to poll. But sitting with Gillman, a seminal figure in quarterback history, and Shanahan, and hearing their this-is-no-contest tone, I thought Manning was the guy. “Peyton will handle the inferno of going to a 3-13 team. He’s a sure player,” Angelo said. And he was.

Forget sports. Forget the NFL. Forget the converged reporter concerned. The salient point here is the massive gap between the unanimous position of the proven experts and the expressed conclusion of the media. The experts consulted by Peter King had unparalleled and unquestioned chops. ESPN could have consulted them even more easily than King did.

And yet, the mainstream media organ somehow managed to present a conclusion diametrically opposed to the conclusion of the experts. This is par for the course. Never forget that.