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Original Issue

Turning Over A New Leaf

The game was over, the game had just begun. Agent Leigh
Steinberg leaned against a wall in the guts of Qualcomm Stadium
on Sunday and played spin doctor. Yes, his client, San Diego
Chargers rookie quarterback Ryan Leaf, had struggled in his
first NFL game, throwing a pair of interceptions plus two picks
that were erased by penalties against the Buffalo Bills. What of
it? The Chargers had squeezed by with a 16-14 victory. Besides,
such mistakes were to be expected from a first-year guy.

"I saw it with a young Drew Bledsoe, a young Troy Aikman, a young
Steve Young," said Steinberg, dropping the names of some of his
higher-profile clients. "To produce a superstar quarterback, the
team has to bear with him through some games that are"--he paused
to choose his words carefully--"less than elegant."

Let that phrase serve to sum up Leaf's NFL debut, in which the
former Washington State quarterback bobbled the snap on his first
regular-season play and had to call timeout after his second,
because he was unable to hear the next play being radioed in. The
audio problem persisted throughout the game: As Leaf covered his
ears to better hear the incoming instructions, he resembled the
despairing subject of Edvard Munch's painting The Scream. Yet it
was the Bills who left the field looking stricken, after Steve
Christie botched a last-second 39-yard field goal attempt that
would have won the game.

Leaf was erratic, but he made more plays than mistakes,
completing 16 of 31 passes for 192 yards and a touchdown.
Afterward he insisted, "I don't care if I go 2 for 40. If we win,
it doesn't matter."

What does matter, says Chargers coach Kevin Gilbride, is that
Leaf get better at "seeing the whole field, seeing his keys,
getting into his progression. Ryan doesn't always do that. But
it's coming. He's making progress."

Some of it's coming the hard way. Take his second interception.
Rolling right, Leaf threw across his body toward the middle of
the field. "I might have gotten away with that in college," he
said afterward, "but up here that's not gonna cut it. The
defensive backs close on the ball a lot quicker."

As the locker room emptied, he sat on a stool and studied a stat
sheet. "Oh, god, look at this," he moaned. "Two for 10 on
third-down conversions." Someone pointed out that his receivers
had dropped at least three balls on third downs. Leaf pretended
not to hear. "This shows I'm friggin' terrible," he said.

He is under instructions from the coaches to be self-deprecating,
an act that occasionally gets old. After throwing for 200 yards
in a preseason half against the St. Louis Rams, Leaf was highly
critical of himself. When a reporter pointed out the good things
he had done, Leaf said, "Would you just let me get down on

In the Bills locker room, free safety Kurt Schulz was not
inclined to let Leaf get down on himself. "There's only one
number that matters," Schulz said. "The guy's 1-0."

--Austin Murphy

COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Mixed reviews The confident Leaf threw for one touchdown, but he was also picked off twice. [Ryan Leaf in game against Buffalo Bills]