It's not real tough to see this one coming. Someday in the near
future, one of the league's alltime good guys will lose his job
to a teammate whose name, in a wide swath of the republic, is a
synonym for punk. Chargers quarterback Jim Harbaugh will be 37 in
December. He has not made it through a season healthy in eight
years. While his fighting spirit and football savvy remain
top-shelf, the march of years has cost the erstwhile Captain
Comeback arm strength and mobility.
It is Harbaugh's fate that the twilight of his career should
intersect with the resurrection of Ryan Leaf, who two years ago
put the terrible in enfant terrible with his play on the field
(two touchdown passes, 15 interceptions, 39.0 rating) and his
behavior off it (tantrums and foul-ups too numerous to mention).
After missing all of 1999 with a torn labrum in his right
shoulder, Leaf continued to experience pain in the joint as late
as last spring, which led him to publicly call into doubt his
After an intensive two-week rehab stint in Birmingham, Leaf
reported on schedule to training camp, where he began to remind
people why he was the second pick in the '98 draft. Says one San
Diego insider, "He's been throwing the s--- out of the ball."
Leaf has also been an Eagle Scout, signing autographs for fans
and being cordial with the media. His renaissance means there's
someone on the roster who can get the ball to TGV-fast wideout
Curtis Conway, San Diego's most significant off-season pickup and
the deep threat that the Chargers lacked in '99. Between Conway
(whose sore right hamstring was a source of worry in the
preseason), a healthy Charlie Jones and exciting fourth-round
pick Trevor Gaylor, wide receiver is San Diego's most improved
This is an offense crying out for improvement. Chargers wide
receivers caught four touchdowns last season, and the offense's
22 touchdowns ranked last in the league. With an attack that was
only slightly more potent, San Diego could have contended for the
"Our receivers have to beat one-on-one coverage," says coach Mike
Riley, "and the quarterbacks have to get 'em the ball. If we do
that, [tight end] Freddie Jones will have a good year, and our
running game will be good because people will have to
But whose passes will Conway, Gaylor and Graham be catching?
Going into the preseason, the battle appeared to be between
Harbaugh and third-year Moses Moreno, who has one career start.
But Leaf, with his strong play and gentlemanly comportment, has
jumbled the equation.
On Aug. 5, when Leaf jogged onto the field at 3Com Park for a
preseason matchup with the 49ers, it was his first game action in
almost 20 months. He looked terrific. Taking command of the
huddle, standing tall in the pocket, he completed 7 of 12 passes,
with one touchdown and an interception. His first four
completions were for 25, 17, 20 and 18 yards. He threw with a
velocity and authority beyond the realm of most quarterbacks in
Afterward he bordered on the euphoric. "The best part was being
able to look at the guys in the huddle," he said. "That's what I
missed the most. Those are the relationships a quarterback
Those, of course, are the relationships Leaf tossed into a
Dumpster with his antics as a rookie. According to all reports,
the Chargers are cautiously taking him back into their embrace.
"His play's been super, and his attitude's much better," says
punter Darren Bennett. "We still need to keep an eye on him,
though. He's still just a kid."
Against the Niners, did the kid remind us, at times, of the
sad-sack quarterback of '98? Of course he did. In addition to
throwing the interception, he lost two fumbles, both of which,
according to Riley, were the result of blown blocking
assignments. "He's had three good months with us," Riley says,
"but we'll take it one day at a time."
It's a measure of Riley's intelligence that he sounds like a man
waiting for the other shoe to drop. "Basically, Ryan is still a
rookie," he warns. "He didn't play last year, and he played half
the season before. He's going to have rougher times. People are
going to treat him like a rookie quarterback...so we're going
have our moments. But we're strengthened because he's here."
Asked to comment on the suspect arm strength of Harbaugh, who has
struggled in the preseason, Riley was smilingly evasive, saying,
"Jim can move a football team. He knows how to play, he knows
what we want. We would go to war with him anytime."
Up the corridor, Harbaugh was chatting with some of his buddies,
a trio of Marines from Sacramento. The conversation turned to his
Humvee, which has 60,000 miles on it. It's only a matter of time
before Harbaugh himself is replaced by a newer model.
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO CAPTAIN COMEBACK That moniker has belonged to Harbaugh, but Leaf (left) enjoyed the most dramatic turnaround in camp.
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK
Sept. 3 at Oakland
10 NEW ORLEANS
17 at Kansas City
Oct. 1 at St. Louis
15 at Buffalo
22 Open date
Nov. 5 at Seattle
19 at Denver
26 KANSAS CITY
Dec. 3 SAN FRANCISCO
10 at Baltimore
17 at Carolina
1999 Record 8-8 (tied for 3rd in AFC West)
NFL rank (rush/pass/total): offense 27/18/26; defense 3/22/12
2000 Schedule strength
NFL rank: 19
Opponents' 1999 winning percentage: .492
Games against playoff teams: 5
PLAYER TO WATCH
Quarterback Jim Harbaugh says he doesn't need an alarm clock
anymore. "I wake up in the morning thinking about those
receivers." He's talking about the Chargers' upgraded wideouts,
the most surprising of whom is rookie Trevor Gaylor, a 6'3" pogo
stick from Miami of Ohio. For most of Gaylor's college career the
Red Hawks' ground-bound offense obscured his talent, enabling San
Diego to steal him in the fourth round. "The way he's played so
far," says Harbaugh, "he could've been a first-round pick." With
a vertical leap of 37 1/2 inches, Gaylor has spent the preseason
elevating over defensive backs and snatching balls from the air.
"To go up high over somebody and pull the ball down--it's our
version of the slam dunk," says coach Mike Riley.
PROJECTED LINEUP WITH 1999 STATISTICS
Coach: Mike Riley
Second season with Chargers (8-8 in NFL)
Offensive Backs PVR*
QB Jim Harbaugh 114 434 att. 249 comp. 57.4% 2,761 yds.
10 TDs 14 int. 70.6 rtg.
RB Jermaine Fazande 103 91 att. 365 yds. 4.0 avg. 0 rec.
0 yds. 0.0 avg. 2 TDs
RB Robert Chancey255 14 att. 57 yds. 4.1 avg. 0 rec.
0 yds. 0.0 avg. 0 TDs
FB Fred McCrary 322 0 att. 0 yds. 0.0 avg. 37 rec.
201 yds. 5.4 avg. 1 TD
Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
WR Curtis Conway 121 44 rec. 426 yds. 4 TDs
WR Jeff Graham 161 57 rec. 968 yds. 2 TDs
WR Trevor Gaylor (R) 269 53 rec. 1,028 yds. 11 TDs
TE Freddie Jones 208 56 rec. 670 yds. 2 TDs
K John Carney 244 22/23 XPs 31/36 FGs 115 pts.
PR Charlie Jones 212 9 ret. 10.3 avg. 0 TDs
KR Ronney Jenkins (R)286 0 ret. 0.0 avg. 0 TDs
LT Ben Coleman 6'5" 332 lbs. 16 games 12 starts
LG Raleigh Roundtree 6'4" 295 lbs. 15 games 5 starts
C Roman Fortin 6'5" 297 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RG Kevin Gogan 6'7" 325 lbs. 16 games 10 starts
RT Vaughn Parker 6'3" 300 lbs. 15 games 15 starts
LE Al Fontenot 34 tackles 5 sacks
LT Jamal Williams 26 tackles 1 sack
RT John Parrella 53 tackles 5 1/2 sacks
RE Darren Mickell 0 tackles 0 sacks
OLB Gerald Dixon 37 tackles 4 sacks
MLB Orlando Ruff 19 tackles 0 sacks
OLB Junior Seau 98 tackles 3 1/2 sacks
CB Darryll Lewis 41 tackles 4 int.
SS Rodney Harrison 41 tackles 1 int.
FS Michael Dumas 81 tackles 2 int.
CB DeRon Jenkins 62 tackles 0 int.
P Darren Bennett 89 punts 43.9 avg.
 New acquisition (R) Rookie (statistics for final college
year) *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 139)
THE BOOK an opposing team's scout sizes up the Chargers
"They won more AFC West games (five) than anyone in the
division, so it looks as if they're up-and-coming. But I'm
skeptical....The defense is getting old--seven starters are in
their 30s--and the Chargers love to zone blitz, but they don't
have enough speed to pull it off much longer....They started to
wear down against the pass last year, and it will be tough for
them to maintain the No. 3 run defense after losing [tackle]
Norman Hand to New Orleans. Jamal Williams is an athletic player
who did well on third downs last year, but I don't see him
stopping the run the way Hand did....Offensively, they were
horrible last year, partly due to a lack of skill players but
due more to their quarterback. They'd be better off if Ryan Leaf
would step up, because Jim Harbaugh's arm isn't very strong
....Ben Coleman, a guard for most of his career, has a huge
assignment. If he fails at left tackle, they'll struggle....If
Jermaine Fazande keeps playing like he did against Denver at the
end of last year, they may have found their back of the future."