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Chargers' Rookie QB Leaf Benched

This time, the Leaf really has fallen.

Brash rookie Ryan Leaf was benched on Monday after yet another poor performance, and the San Diego Chargers gave the starting job to Craig Whelihan, the only other quarterback on their active roster.

The switch begins with Sunday's game against Baltimore, the first of three straight at home for the Chargers (3-6). It could be for the rest of the year, or Leaf could be back in if the Chargers find they need the kind of offensive lift they do now.

Leaf has been pulled from games three times this year, including Sunday's 27-10 loss at Denver. Unlike the first two times, he's not getting the nod for the following Sunday.

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Leaf's inaccuracy -- he was 4-for-15 for 26 yards -- was a big reason why the Chargers lost at Denver even though John Elway was in for just three plays and NFL rushing leader Terrell Davis had only 69 yards.

"We need a little spark and I'm hoping Craig can do some things and make some plays to get us going," coach June Jones said.

"It's gonna be weird not being the starter," said Leaf, who got an $11.25 million signing bonus as the second pick in April's draft. "Hopefully we'll turn this into a positive."

Leaf came into the league highly touted but has struggled badly, throwing just two touchdown passes while being intercepted 13 times. His passer rating of 39.9 is lowest in the NFL.

"I'm disappointed, but you should be in this case," Leaf said. "I don't want to hold back the team in any way. Whatever gives us the best opportunity to win the football game, I want that to be achieved. ... You've got to look at the team right now and not just thmaturation of me."

Whelihan, who has looked decent in two of his three relief appearances this year, is eager for redemption. The Chargers lost their last eight games of 1997, and Whelihan started seven of them after Stan Humphries was lost to a career-ending concussion. Whelihan says that 0-7 tag still bothers him.

"I want this game real bad. Real bad," he said.

So do the Chargers, which is why Jones made the move.

"We're trying to do anything, obviously, to get it going," said Jones, who told Leaf that most struggling young quarterbacks get benched. It even happened to Elway as a rookie.

"We need a win," the coach said. "I've got the whole team to think about and I felt that the team needed a little something. We all felt the same way."

Whelihan says he's able to play with intensity while Leaf often thinks things through too much. And Whelihan points to the experience he gained last year.

"I was under fire for seven games," Whelihan said. "I was the third-string quarterback; the next thing I knew I was the starting quarterback, thrown in the fire, and I made the most of it. I took my shots, on the field and off the field, and I think I've matured from it."

The 0-7 streak wasn't all Whelihan's fault. He was playing behind the same line that failed to protect Humphries and Jim Everett, also lost to injury. Whelihan threw five TD passes and 10 interceptions in his seven starts.

This year, he has matched Leaf's touchdown pass production -- each has thrown two -- and has completed 50 percent of his passes while Leaf has hit on just 44.2 percent.

"He has a few years under his belt, so he knows what he has to do," said wide receiver Charlie Jones, who regained a starting job at the expense of Bryan Still. "I think he stays in the pocket a little more. He doesn't jump out quite as quick."

The job could be Whelihan's for the rest of the year "if he plays well," June Jones said. "Just like it's Ryan's if he gets back in there and he plays well."

Said Whelihan: "Right now I'm taking it as I've got the start this week. I'm going to go out versus Baltimore and I'm going to get a win."

Leaf said he didn't sense his teammates losing confidence in him, but saw the disappointment along the sideline when he overthrew Still on what would have been a sure touchdown on the Chargers' third play Sunday.

"I think the players know that I'm going to be the future of this franchise, and it was coming to the point that I wasn't getting the job done," Leaf said. "He (Jones) didn't want them to turn on me, I think."

© 1998 SportsLine USA, Inc. All rights reserved

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