August 14, 1998
BY BERNIE WILSON
AP SPORTS WRITER
Ryan Leaf didn't look at all like a rattled rookie in his NFL debut.
Sure, the touted San Diego Chargers quarterback made some mistakes and still has a ways to go in adjusting to the faster pace of the pro game. But was he nervous? Nope. It's not in his playbook.
``I was anxious to get out there. It's been since Jan. 1,'' said Leaf, who looked poised in leading the Chargers to a 27-21 exhibition win over the San Francisco 49ers Saturday night. Leaf's previous game had been as a Washington State junior against Michigan in the Rose Bowl. In between, Leaf was the second pick overall in the draft and became a millionaire.
"I was tired of all the hoopla and talk," Leaf said. "It's finally time now to get down to business and play football instead of having people talk about it. And that was the fun part about it.''
Even though it was a game that didn't count, the fans, who watched an atrocious 4-12 Chargers team in 1997, finally got to see why San Diego invested so heavily in Leaf. He threw a pretty 3-yard fade pass to Bryan Still for a 14-0 lead in the second quarter. He finished his two quarters of work 14-for-20 for 116 yards, with no sacks and no interceptions.
``I wanted an 18-for-20 performance but I didn't get it,'' Leaf said. ``I'm just happy with the way everybody helped me. They made the 14-for-20 performance. It wasn't too much of what I did. Four or five of those catches were snags, I mean, fingertip kind of plays.''
Thinking a blitz was coming, Leaf called an audible on the TD play. There was no blitz, but the play worked. Leaf lobbed the ball and Still made the catch, getting his feet down before tumbling out of bounds.
``I didn't give him a very good throw,'' Leaf said. ``I left it short. He went up and made a great grab.''
The credit goes to Still, but the ball's going into Leaf's trophy room.
``I'm going to cherish it,'' he said. ``I'll never forget it, especially against the San Francisco 49ers.''
Leaf also got away with throwing into double coverage at the goal line - a play on which 49ers rookie cornerback Kelly Malveaus committed pass interference against Still.
Because of San Francisco's blitzing, the Chargers stuck mostly with short patterns. Only five of Leaf's completions went for 10 or more yards, the longest being 14 yards.
``He throws so accurately,'' coach Kevin Gilbride said. ``Even though he was late a few times, he put it in position where the only one who could catch it was us. That was the most encouraging thing.
``I don't want to in any way, shape or form make it seem like he's where he needs to be. Still, he's able to make plays and that's what it comes down to. I thought he did that very, very well.''
As he has numerous times this summer, Gilbride called Leaf ``special.''
Running back Terrell Fletcher called Leaf ``a fearless player. That's a big attribute.''
Leaf said the radio receiver in his helmet, which coaches use to call in plays, didn't work the first two series. He partially winged it, with help from his teammates and quarterback coach June Jones, who told him to have three or four plays down pat to use.
``I think he surprised a lot of people with how composed he was,'' guard Raleigh McKenzie said. ``We went three-and-out the first series, then he got real poised. He knew what to do in there.''
After the game, the Chargers agreed to terms of a one-year contract with free agent wide receiver Michael Haynes and said safety Greg Jackson will be out 4-6 weeks with a stress fracture in his left fibula sustained in practice.