PHOENIX -- Ryan Leaf knows the pressure that comes with being drafted as the savior of a franchise. He also understands how quickly things can go off track if you don't have the full support of the organization that drafted you.
By support, Leaf means consistency around you and the willingness to give you what you need to thrive as a young quarterback in the NFL.
The then-San Diego Chargers drafted Leaf with the No. 2 pick in the 1998 NFL Draft, one pick behind Peyton Manning. But the head coach who drafted him, Kevin Gilbride, was fired just five games into Leaf's rookie season.
Leaf's NFL career didn't pan out for a myriad of reasons, many of which are of his own doing. But he noted how hard it is for a young quarterback to succeed when the coach and regime that draft you are gone after one season. Bears quarterback Justin Fields had to overcome that this past season after the firing of head coach Matt Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace.
That Fields was able to thrive amid a sea of change is something that isn't talked about enough in Leaf's opinion.
“It’s so incredibly difficult," Leaf told NBC Sports Chicago at Super Bowl LVII's Radio Row. "Then you look at the ownership and the people in charge, and you’re like, ‘What the hell are you doing? Why did you invest in me if you were just going to drag me through the mud? I’m going to struggle as it is, but now you take away the one guy I have this relationship with. They guy that, when I was drafted, I’m like, I’m going to play in this offense.’ It’s incredibly difficult. It’s always dumbfounding to me when ownership makes decisions like this when the quarterback is the reason teams are successful in the NFL. So do everything you can to build the quarterback up, not tear him down.
"If somebody else can come in and make a difference then, OK, maybe. But I’m a Chargers fan. What the Chargers have done with Justin Herbert, I mean, he’s on his third offensive coordinator in four years. I mean, you got to have some consistency. Peyton Manning had the same offense his entire career.”
The Bears' decision to fire Nagy was past due. The bigger mistake chairman George McCaskey made was letting Nagy and Pace hang around for a lame-duck season before making the change. The best thing that came out of that decision was Pace and Nagy's decision to draft Fields, who steadied himself after a turbulent start to his career and looks to be the franchise quarterback the Bears have been trying to find.
That Fields overcame rookie-year struggles, a regime change, having to learn a new system, and still excelled despite a lack of talent around him tells Leaf the Bears have the guy.
“I was really impressed with what Justin is able to do because four games into the season, people were banging it over peoples’ heads like, ‘Get him out!’ I mean,it was over," Leaf told NBC Sports Chicago. "Now people are talking like, ‘You could have had Justin Fields in the draft and instead you went with so and so.’"
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As the Bears head into a critical offseason, Leaf views what the Eagles have done around Jalen Hurts as a model for Chicago to follow.
“I think what he did, his skill set, he utilized it to make him successful at the NFL level," Leaf told NBC Sports Chicago. "Now, he’s got to focus on what he’s got to get better at. This is a pretty unique blueprint that we watched Jalen Hurts go through, right? He used his feet a lot and, in Year 2, got them to the playoffs. The success that the Bears had wasn’t quite the same in terms of wins.
"But now, he’s got to go and commit to going and getting to be a better passer. Whatever that takes. Then the Bears have to step up and get him some talent.”
As far as the thought the Bears could trade Fields and draft a different quarterback with the No. 1 pick, Leaf doesn't understand why that would be on the table for general manager Ryan Poles.
"If they are not all in on Justin Fields, which I don’t see how you can’t be, the guy was incredibly impressive last year," Leaf told NBC Sports Chicago, "then you’re just going to keep chasing things that you’re never going to be able to accomplish.”