September 11, 1998

Leaf Survives Some Big Mistakes in NFL Debut

By Bernie Wilson

Ryan Leaf got away with plenty of mistakes in his NFL debut.

He fumbled the snap on the San Diego Chargers' first play, which running back Natrone Means recovered. He called audibles, going away from running plays to pass plays that didn't work.

And he threw two interceptions - two more were negated by Buffalo penalties.

So it's no wonder Leaf was relieved when Steve Christie's 39-yard field goal attempt with three seconds left on Sunday sailed wide left, preserving San Diego's 16-14 victory over the Bills.

``I was just trying to make plays. You see a guy open, you try to get him the football,'' Leaf said Monday. ``In college you may be able to get away with that. In the NFL, if those are the mistakes I had to have to get me to learn that, I'd rather have them in the first game than a case where I had to do it to get to the playoffs or something like that.''

Leaf gave San Diego a 10-0 lead with a 6-yard touchdown pass to Bryan Still, which was set up by a 67-yard hookup between the two on the first play of the second half.

But Leaf's second interception set up Doug Flutie's second touchdown pass of the afternoon to Andre Reed, giving the Bills a 14-13 lead with 9:05 to play.

``That touchdown, I almost lost the game for us,'' Leaf said. ``If he doesn't miss that field goal, then the reason we lose the game is because I throw that interception.''

Fortunately for Leaf and the rest of the Chargers, John Carney matched his 1991 club record with a 54-yard field goal that banged off the left upright with 4:30 to go, then Christie missed the game-winner. Christie also missed a 21-yard attempt early in the fourth.

Leaf knows that the next time he tries to roll right and throw back across his body, there's going to be a safety lurking, waiting for a pickoff.

``Luckily I learned it here in the first game,'' Leaf said. ``Now, next week in Tennessee, it's not going to happen. You tuck, gain five yards, you know, and live to fight another day.''

Coach Kevin Gilbride has tried to temper fans' enthusiasm for Leaf, the second pick in the draft, and what happened Sunday is exactly what he feared.

``I think what he is a young guy that wants so badly to live up to his teammates' expectations and the hopes of the city, that sometimes he forced the action more than he would have, rather than let the play take care of itself,'' Gilbride said.

The Chargers, of course, still love Leaf's physical skills and his competitiveness.

``Sometimes if that's not in measured amounts, that's your testosterone that gets you in trouble,'' Gilbride said.

Leaf has to let his supporting cast do its job, including Means, who carried just 15 times for 57 yards. Means was given a $19.1 million contract in the offseason.

Gilbride said Leaf audibled away from running plays at least five times.

``That was the bad part. That's what we told him, `If you're going to audible, you've got to make it go,' '' Gilbride said.

Leaf, who thought he audibled away from the run three or four times, said he was reverting back to his Washington State days, when the Cougars ran a one-back offense.

``Now we run a two-back here, and I've got to make sure I understand that every time out there, that extra back is an extra blocker,'' he said.

``We probably didn't run the ball as much because I was taking us out of it. I've got to let the team do what they have to do and not try to put as much of the load on my shoulders.''

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