December 31, 1998
By Bernie Wilson
AP SPORTS WRITER
In the wake of Ryan Leaf's numerous meltdowns, both on and off the field, two defensive starters say the San Diego Chargers need a veteran quarterback to snap the franchise out of its funk.
The defense finished with the NFL's top ranking overall and against the run, but too often saw its work undone by the brutal play of Leaf, a rookie bust, and his replacement, Craig Whelihan.
The Chargers finished 5-11, losing their last five games and getting little in return for the $11.25 million signing bonus they gave Leaf, the second pick in April's draft behind Peyton Manning. Leaf went from Boy Wonder to Boy Blunder, throwing 15 interceptions and just two touchdown passes, and posting a passer rating of 39.0, the NFL's worst. Whelihan had 19 pickoffs and eight TD passes. The 34 interceptions tied the franchise record set in 1962.
Whelihan at least had the respect of his teammates, who felt he was doing everything he could to prepare. Leaf's immaturity and arrogance turned off his teammates and the fans.
So add a veteran quarterback to general manager Bobby Beathard's shopping list. Beathard also has to hire a coach, who will be the team's third in a year. Defensive coordinator Joe Pascale interviewed on Monday.
``Look for us to go after the Warren Moons of the world, believe me, and get a guy in here not to baby sit, but to win,'' said Pro Bowl linebacker Junior Seau, who was named team MVP and defensive player of the year on Monday. ``In that process, he'll (Leaf) grow.''
Fellow linebacker Lew Bush said Leaf ``has to do some growing up. I'm not criticizing my teammate, but he did a lot of real stupid things this season.''
A season that started with promise - Leaf became the first rookie since John Elway to win his first two games - ended with Leaf not getting into the season finale, a 16-13 loss at Arizona, even though lame duck coach June Jones said he would.
Seau said there was no sense putting Leaf in and having his confidence shaken even more if something bad happened.
``We were better off just letting him sit and do the things we did yesterday and we still had a chance to win,'' Seau said. ``Ryan's going to be a great quarterback, if he wants to be.''
You can bet Leaf's teammates will be watching closely during offseason workouts and minicamps.
``He's going to have to do a lot of showing and growing before people are going to respect him. Respect isn't bought, it's earned,'' Bush said.
``It's all up to me,'' Leaf said. ``It's a big challenge, though. This one is deeper, because I dug myself a hole and I have to climb my way out of it.''
And compete for the job he was handed shortly after training camp opened.
``We'd like to get a guy who can come in and if the young guy's not ready, then the other guy can start and hopefully we can win with him,'' Beathard said. ``If the young guy proves he is ready, then the other guy's there to come in like some of these guys in the league have done.''
This year's possibilities include Moon, 42, who lost his starting job to Jon Kitna in Seattle; Mark Rypien, a former Super Bowl MVP who like Leaf played at Washington State; and Kansas City's Rich Gannon, who will be a free agent.
The Chargers inquired about Rypien this season, but he was still dealing with the death of his young son, Andrew, from cancer.
Rypien, 36, said Monday the Chargers would be an appealing situation. He is friends with Leaf and the Chargers have several players, coaches and staff members who were Redskins when Rypien was.
``Everyone wants to play. I'm not any exception. That's the one thing you get into the game for,'' he said.
Rypien said he's confident Leaf will get the job done, ``whether it's next year or two years from now.''
Beathard said he thinks Leaf has learned something by being benched. The quarterback spoke with Beathard on Monday for about 15 minutes.
``I was encouraged by it,'' Beathard said. ``It wasn't anything like before. He came in and I wasn't lecturing him. Judging by the conversation we had, I give him the benefit of the doubt.''
Beathard said he hoped to set up more coaching interviews for later this week. Beathard is know to admire Stanford's Tyrone Willing-ham, former UCLA coach Terry Donahue and Minnesota offensive coordinator Brian Billick. Billick interviewed with Cleveland on Monday, but can't be interviewed by other teams until after the Vikings' season ends.
Another name that keeps popping up is former 49ers coach George Seifert.
Jones, who replaced the fired Kevin Gilbride on an interim basis on Oct. 13, is taking over the head coaching job at Hawaii.