Publish date:

Sad Sack After a promising start, Chargers rookie quarterback Ryan Leaf blew up on the field and off, casting doubt about whether he has the smarts and discipline to lead an NFL team

Ryan Leaf, the San Diego Chargers quarterback, was seated in a
chair on the stage of the Matthew Sherman Elementary School
auditorium, playing Santa Claus. The beneficiaries of his
largesse on Dec. 14 were not Chargers' opponents, for a change,
but rather the students at the San Diego primary school, who
received from Leaf goody bags and stockings stuffed with toys.
These items, unlike the 19 turnovers that Leaf has committed this
season, weren't gift-wrapped.

In another switch, Leaf wasn't booed by the hometown audience.
"All the kids knew was that there was a Charger in their school,"
says Sylvia Soria, an instructional aide at Sherman Elementary
who had arranged Leaf's visit. A loyal San Diego fan, Soria isn't
inclined to give up on Leaf just yet. "He's still a young man,"
she says. "We have a lot of underprivileged kids here, and we
tell them, 'Just because you've had a hard start doesn't mean you
can't have a beautiful finish.'"

Steve Young had a hard start. Troy Aikman had a hard start. Leaf
had a catastrophe, the result of having not only the worst
quarterback rating (39.0) in the league in the '90s but also the
worst public relations instincts. He has thrown two touchdown
passes and 15 interceptions, completed 45.3% of his throws and
been sacked 22 times. His rookie year has been a study in bad
reads, bad passes and bad behavior. His off-field misdeeds
include a profanity-laced tirade at a reporter that aired on
nationwide TV and an infamous weekend of barhopping and
hell-raising near the campus of his alma mater, Washington State.

Is there a beautiful finish on Leaf's horizon? "It's in his
hands," says June Jones, San Diego's interim coach, who will
become the University of Hawaii's head man after the Chargers'
season finale at Arizona on Sunday. "His commitment in the
off-season will dictate how he does." A former Rainbows player
and coach, Jones says he could have remained San Diego's coach if
he had wanted to and dismisses reports that one of the reasons
he's walking away from the Chargers is that he doesn't believe
Leaf is the type of player around whom a franchise can be built.
Few NFL insiders doubt Leaf's physical attributes, but privately,
those who have worked most closely with him say he won't reach
his potential until he adopts a more professional attitude. Leaf,
on the other hand, has no doubts about his future. "Everybody
tells me, 'You're going to be fine,'" he says. "Well, I know I'm
going to be fine."

San Diego general manager Bobby Beathard traded a king's
ransom--two first-round draft picks and a second-rounder, plus
wideout-return man Eric Metcalf and linebacker Patrick Sapp--to
move up one spot in last year's draft for the opportunity to take
Leaf, a junior coming out early, with the second pick. "Ladies
and gentlemen, we have the player who's going to lead us to the
Super Bowl," Chargers owner Alex Spanos said after San Diego had
selected Leaf. Three days into training camp Leaf agreed to a
five-year, $31.25 million contract that included an $11.25
million signing bonus, and shortly thereafter he was named the
Chargers' starter.

However, by mid-November, when Leaf was benched, Beathard would
say, "A career could be crumbling if he doesn't wise up and
understand he isn't handling things the right way." Beathard now
says, "There's a maturity factor with Ryan," which means that
Leaf is immature. When might Leaf start acting his age? "I don't
know the timing on that," Beathard says.

It needs to have happened yesterday--or so it seems if you listen
to the talk in the San Diego locker room. In a game against the
Seattle Seahawks on Dec. 13, Leaf relieved Craig Whelihan, who'd
thrown five interceptions. Leaf, who was seeing his first action
in five games, didn't exactly take the Kingdome crowd out of the
game: He tossed two more interceptions and lost a fumble that was
returned for a touchdown.

The day after that 38-17 defeat, Chargers strong safety Rodney
Harrison and linebacker Kurt Gouveia criticized unnamed teammates
for not preparing sufficiently and for taking losses too lightly.
Gouveia left little doubt that one of the players he was talking
about was Leaf when he said, "College is over. This is the NFL.
You are expected to play well, and you are getting good money to

Gouveia, who returned this season after cracking a vertebra in
his neck in 1997, is one of the most respected San Diego players.
Three days after the loss to Seattle, he elaborated on his
remarks. "I'm in the league 13 years, and I still have a sense
that I'm going to lose my job if I don't play well," he said. "I
approach every day with a sense of urgency. Every guy on this
team needs to ask himself if he has that urgency.

"Ryan lost this team this year, and it was a tremendous loss
because of the wasted effort by the defense. [The Chargers lead
the NFL in total defense but have only a 5-10 record.] If we
were just average on offense, who knows where we'd be? You're in
the pros now. Stand up and be accountable. Futures are at stake.
Livelihoods are at stake. This is not a place for kids who've
got a lot of money to joke around."

Upon learning that a reporter was working on a Leaf story,
another Chargers veteran said with disdain, "Rip his ass off.
Kid's got the world by the balls, and he doesn't even know it."

Since Jones benched him after a Nov. 8 loss to the Denver
Broncos, Leaf has had plenty of time to reflect. He knows he has
lost his teammates' confidence and is itching to win it back.
Admitting that he was ceded the starting job "based on where I
was drafted," he says, "now I want to earn it. I want my
teammates to want me in there. I want to deserve to be in there."

Or does he? Citing unnamed players, the San Diego Union-Tribune
reported on Monday that Leaf has fallen asleep in meetings and,
since being pulled, has been going through the motions in
practice. "I don't think he's learned a thing since he was
benched," said one Charger.

After the preseason Leaf hardly looked like a player who would be
relegated to the sideline so soon. He carved up the San Francisco
49ers in his first exhibition game, passing for 116 yards and two
touchdowns in the first half. In another preseason game he
outplayed Peyton Manning, whom the Indianapolis Colts had
selected with the first pick of the draft. Leaf's statistics
going into the regular season were solid: 49 completions in 81
attempts (60.5%) for 580 yards, two touchdowns and a pair of

"He had a good preseason and then threw a couple picks in our
opener," says Jones, who was hired as quarterbacks coach to groom
Leaf. Those interceptions, in a 16-14 win over the Buffalo Bills
in San Diego, "surprised him," Jones says. "All of a sudden he
was a little fragile, a little more tentative."

Yet Leaf bounced back the next week, completing 13 of 24 passes
for 179 yards and no interceptions in a 13-7 road defeat of the
Tennessee Oilers. Not noted for his swiftness, the 6'5",
240-pound Leaf nevertheless ran 20 yards to the Tennessee
one-yard line on a third-and-nine play to set up the winning
touchdown. "I kind of thought, We're on our way," says Jones.

The Chargers were on their way--into a Stephen King novella,
into the crawl space of the AFC West standings, into a four-game
losing streak during which Leaf would come unglued, on and off
the field, and coach Kevin Gilbride would lose his job. Here are
the lowlights.

--Sept. 20: Leaf completes 1 of 15 passes, throws two
interceptions and loses three fumbles in a 23-7 loss to the
Kansas City Chiefs. Afterward he reams out a team cameraman for
standing too close to his locker.

--Sept. 21: With at least one camera rolling in the locker room,
Leaf goes ballistic on Union-Tribune writer Jay Posner, who had
written about the previous day's ballistics. The video clip,
featuring Leaf calling Posner a "f------ b----", gets national

--Sept. 27: Four more interceptions in a 34-16 beating by the New
York Giants leave Leaf near tears and questioning his ability to
play in the NFL.

--Sept. 28: After apologizing for his boorish behavior to the
media, Leaf tosses the written copy of his statement into his

--Oct. 11: Leaf chalks up three more interceptions in a 7-6 loss
to the Oakland Raiders, giving him 12 in his first six games.

Looking back, Leaf said last week, "I probably shouldn't have
played in the K.C. game"--because he had been hospitalized for one
night with an infected leg during the week before the game--"but
I'm so damn competitive that I did. Played the whole game with a
fever. Didn't help that it rained the whole time, either."

The events of those two days--Leaf's implosion versus the Chiefs
and his explosion a day later--defined his rookie year, in the
opinion of his agent, Leigh Steinberg. "Ryan has this idea that
he performs best when he's in a corner, fighting his way out,"
says Steinberg. "After the Kansas City incident, he withdrew into
a shell. He felt the world had been unfair to him. People ask me,
'What are you telling Ryan?' and I say, 'I'd tell him a lot if I
could get him on the phone.'"

Leaf's mule-headedness can be a good thing, according to Jones.
"The reason he's had some success is because he believes he can
do anything, and he's not afraid to try it," says Jones. "He's
got a toughness about him, a different mental approach than other
guys. At the same time, you've got to channel that off the

Which brings us to the events of Oct. 29 and 30 in Pullman,
Wash. Leaf went into the Chargers' bye weekend on a small roll,
having thrown for a career-high 281 yards in a 27-20 loss to the
Seahawks on the previous Sunday. He was returning to his old
campus to donate $200,000 to Washington State--half of it to
fund a scholarship in the name of Andrew Rypien, the son of
former Cougars quarterback Mark Rypien who had died of cancer in
August. Only an epic screwup by Leaf could eclipse the positive
publicity sure to result from his philanthropy. He was up to the

Shakers is a cavernous Pullman watering hole favored by students.
The place was packed when Leaf rolled in with a small entourage
on the night of Oct. 29. Things turned ugly after Chris Cashman,
a senior, asked Leaf to pose with him for a picture. Cashman
hosts Nite Lite, a weekly comedy show on Washington State's cable
channel. When Leaf learned that Cashman had poked fun at him on
the air, the two had words. According to several students, Leaf
then doused a group of Cashman's friends with a pitcher of beer.

This was but one of several allegations of loutish behavior--he
was reportedly kicked out of Shakers, another bar and a
convenience store--leveled at Leaf after his visit to Pullman.
"All the accusations that were made, I didn't do one of those
things," Leaf says. That he denies tossing the beer comes as a
mild surprise to junior Jeff Dooley, who says he was one of the
people Leaf soaked. "Believe me, he threw beer on us," says
Dooley. How did Dooley respond? "I looked at my buddy, and we
both started laughing. You want to like Leaf because he got us
to the Rose Bowl last year, but he makes it tough because he's
such a jackass."

Word of Leaf's antics made its way to San Diego. When Jones
decided to replace Leaf with Whelihan, he cited Leaf's behavior
in Pullman as part of the reason for the decision. That benching
ended--for this year, at least--the unofficial competition between
Leaf and Manning, who has blossomed into a savvy passer. "Peyton
has exceeded our expectations," gushes Colts president Bill
Polian, "but that's what happens with guys who have terrific work
habits and terrific intelligence."

O.K., Bill, we get your point. Manning is 22 going on 42; Leaf
is 22 going on 16. Polian is certain that Leaf would have
benefited from another year in college, just as he believes Leaf
can overcome his rocky NFL start. New England Patriots director
of player personnel Bobby Grier agrees, saying, "If you take
your time with Leaf, you're going to have yourself a great

"He's got the big arm," says a high-ranking executive for one NFC
team. "He's a great competitor. He has god-given instincts to
throw. The biggest problem is, he's a natural jerk. He was a jerk
in high school, and he's a jerk now."

The day after he fulfilled his Santa duty, Leaf spoke to another
group of students about the importance of avoiding drugs and
alcohol and of staying in school. While attention has been
focused on his turnovers and blowups, Leaf has quietly made
roughly 30 charitable appearances since being drafted. Rip his
ass off?

Perhaps we should take the view of Shakers owner Tony Boydston,
who says, "Don't crucify the guy for having a bad attitude. For
the amount of pressure he's under, for the number of people
poking at him and pulling on him, he's not doing that badly."

Or follow the advice of one of the frat boys Leaf reportedly
splashed with beer that night, one who asked that his name not
be used. "Take it easy on Ryan," he says. "He's had a tough year."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY PATRICK MURPHY-RACEY LAID LOW Leaf's 39.0 quarterback rating is the worst in the league this decade. [Ryan Leaf falling down in game]


COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK WELCOME TO THE NFL San Diego beat Buffalo in Leaf's debut, but his confidence may have been shaken by a pair of interceptions. [Ryan Leaf getting sacked]

COLOR PHOTO: PATRICK MURPHY-RACEY TURNOVERS Leaf's atrocious showing in K.C. included three lost fumbles, but he was even worse after the game. [Ryan Leaf losing ball in game]

"Everybody tells me, 'You're going to be fine,'" says Leaf.
"Well, I know I'm going to be fine."

"He has god-given instincts to throw," says one NFC executive.
"Problem is, he's a natural jerk."