Ryan Leaf's injury may be a blessing in disguise for the Chargers
Be honest. You're going to miss Chargers quarterback Ryan Leaf
this season. Without Leaf's nodding off in meetings and
reportedly getting tossed out of bars, throwing tantrums and
grotesque interceptions, the NFL is a less interesting place.
Often a boor, Leaf was never boring.
At the Chargers' training camp last week, it appeared that those
least likely to miss him are his teammates. They were far from
devastated by the news that surgery on July 26 to repair torn
cartilage in Leaf's right shoulder will probably sideline him
for the season. There even seemed to be a sense of relief that
the team would be spared the kind of distractions that Leaf
created during his tumultuous 1998 rookie season. While
producing an abysmal 39.0 quarterback rating on the field--the
worst by a regular since 1976--he behaved abominably off it.
Leaf first hurt the shoulder diving on a loose ball at a June
minicamp. Although he missed three of the four throwing sessions
that first-year coach Mike Riley had set up for him and wideout
Charlie Jones later in the off-season, Leaf assured reporters
that he'd been throwing 100 balls a day in the weeks leading up
to camp. Then came the injury.
"This could be the best thing that's ever happened to him,"
Chargers punter Darren Bennett says. "It's a chance to prove
everyone wrong. Hopefully he'll take the rehab seriously and
come back with a vengeance."
No rush, Ryan. On July 22, the day before Leaf left practice
clutching his shoulder in pain, San Diego general manager Bobby
Beathard signed Erik Kramer, who'd been cut by the Bears earlier
in the week. Considering the events of the following day, the
timing of Kramer's signing made one wonder: Did the Chargers
have an inkling that Leaf's shoulder was unsound? "We really
didn't," says Riley, whom Beathard hired from Oregon State. "It
was blind luck." San Diego had already acquired Jim Harbaugh in
a March trade with the Baltimore Ravens. Harbaugh was the
projected starter even before Leaf's injury.
Despite having an early run-in with Leaf, who made headlines
again when he missed three days of a minicamp in late spring,
Riley has been gentle in his handling of the team's enfant
terrible. "Ryan's not unlike a lot of kids his age," says Riley,
"and there are plenty of great examples [for him to follow] on
this team, if he'd just pay close attention."
While no one has gone on record as saying "Good riddance,"
Leaf's teammates are delighted to have a pair of veteran
quarterbacks to lead the offense. Says one player, "It'll be
nice having a guy who throws to the right-colored jersey." Adds
left tackle John Jackson, "There's so much difference between
this year and last, I can't tell you."
Isaac Bruce Health Plan
TLC FOR THE DEEP THREAT
Isaac Bruce broke from the huddle during one of the Rams'
opening practices last week and repeated his motivational
mantra: "I'm the best. I know I'm the best. I can't be covered."
A fallen star whose tender hamstrings limited him to 88 catches
in only 17 games over the last two seasons, Bruce has
nevertheless retained his swagger. After catching 224 passes in
his first three years, more than any other wideout in NFL
history, Bruce went into an injury-induced tailspin, suffering
blows to his reputation as well as his standing with St. Louis
coach Dick Vermeil. Last fall, after Bruce's hamstring woes
extended into a second season, team sources say Vermeil began
questioning Bruce's toughness and dedication, and the two had at
least one nasty blowup over the issue.
"He can say whatever he wants, and I've just got to take it,"
Bruce says. "If I say something that contradicts him, I'm fired.
But I was Isaac Bruce before this coaching staff got here, and
I'll be Isaac Bruce if and when they leave."
Now, in the wake of his current return to health and three key
additions to the offense--Pro Bowl running back Marshall Faulk,
promising quarterback Trent Green and rookie wideout Torry
Holt--Bruce, a sublime route runner whose forte is making sharp
cuts, can't wait for the season to begin. (When SI went to press
on Monday, Faulk, because of a contract dispute, had yet to
report to camp.)
"All this talk about erasing my name from the list of elite
players, I don't buy into that," Bruce says. "If [opponents]
don't think I'm that good, let them single-cover me." When was
the last time that happened? "Minnesota, last year." In Week 2
of the '98 season Bruce scorched the Vikings secondary for 192
yards on 11 catches, adding a 30-yard run for good measure, in
the Rams' 38-31 defeat. During practice the following week his
hamstring tightened up, and he played in just three more games.
This year the Rams aren't taking any chances with Bruce. They've
been treating him like Waterford crystal since April, when Al
Saunders, the team's new receivers coach, designed a workout
program that allows the receiver to build gradually toward
participating in a full-speed, 50-play practice. During
Vermeil's notoriously long two-a-days at the team's Macomb,
Ill., training camp, Bruce is monitored by Saunders, who holds
him out of selected drills and scrimmages. "What counts is what
happens on Sundays," Bruce says. "The coaches won't be able to
watch me then, because I'll be all over the field." --Michael
New Jaguar Carnell Lake
SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY
It really wasn't as hard as one might imagine for defensive back
Carnell Lake to leave the Steelers after 10 years. For starters,
on the first day of the free-agent signing period last February,
the Jaguars called with a four-year, $18 million offer that made
Lake the highest-paid safety in the league. But beyond that,
last season Jacksonville ended Pittsburgh's four-year reign as
the AFC Central champ, and Lake says his belief that the two
teams are going in opposite directions made his decision a lot
"I sensed a changing attitude [in Pittsburgh]," says Lake. "The
Steelers are making a commitment to start over. It could take
them four years to be competitive again. At this point in my
career I don't have that kind of time."
It wasn't until the morning of the first day of the Jaguars'
training camp, when he flipped on the TV and saw a report on the
Steelers, that the change hit Lake. "That was weird," he says.
"The memories flooded back."
For the most part they were good ones. Lake was a four-time Pro
Bowl selection at strong safety, his natural position, and when
the injury-plagued Steelers asked him to switch to cornerback in
the prime of his career, in '95 and '97, he did so without
complaint. Nevertheless, when Lake became a free agent after
last season, Pittsburgh, which since 1996 has lost 13 starters
with 17 combined Pro Bowl appearances to free agency, mustered
only a four-year, $13.5 million offer. The Jaguars called with
their take-it-or-leave-it package at 12:01 a.m. on Feb. 12.
In addition to offering more money, Jacksonville gave Lake a
chance to reunite with former Pittsburgh defensive coordinator
Dom Capers and return to playing safety. "I've been on that
lonely island for three years," says Lake, 32. "It will be nice
to move back to the mainland." Still, Lake and Capers will have
their work cut out for them as they try to toughen up a soft
defense, which ranked 25th in 1998. --David Fleming
BULLETIN: DEION JOGS
Don't be surprised if Cowboys cornerback Deion Sanders misses
only two games while recovering from surgery on his left big
toe, confounding his doctors, who projected he would return in
November. Dallas's third game isn't until Oct. 3, and Sanders is
already running at medium speed on a treadmill.... The Browns
will probably start seven-year veteran Ty Detmer over No. 1
draft pick Tim Couch at quarterback in their opener. "I need the
game to slow down," Couch said last week. "I know it'll happen.
I just don't know if it'll be halfway through training camp or
halfway through the season." ... Two old-school owners went to
the league meetings in Chicago last week and told Management
Council executive vice president Harold Henderson that they'd
give the league 30 days to take action against the 49ers for cap
evasion or they'd take the matter to commissioner Paul
Tagliabue. A source inside the Management Council believes the
league has sufficient evidence to prove that the Niners, under
the stewardship of then owner Eddie DeBartolo and former
president Carmen Policy, knowingly violated cap rules when
reworking tight end Brent Jones's contract in February 1997.
Read Peter King's postcards from camp at cnnsi.com/football.
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK The Chargers penciled in Harbaugh as the starter long before Leaf went down.
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Lake, 32, felt a sense of urgency as he shopped his services.