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Ryan Leaf: Star QB To Backup

On the same afternoon Peyton Manning threw three touchdown passes and rallied his team to a last-second victory, that other big-name rookie quarterback, Ryan Leaf, watched his team go on without him.

He stood on the sideline, held a ball under one arm and wore his baseball cap backward, as 22-year-olds will do. There weren't any grass stains on his uniform at game's end, no aches and pains to work out the next day. He was the only Charger who didn't play, and the team did OK.

So, how does someone go from hotshot to backing up Craig Whelihan, who, due to circumstances not fully under his control, needed eight starts to get his first NFL win?

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Leave it to Leaf.

Despite the potential that the Chargers keep talking about, Leaf's career was flat-lining after just nine games. His off-field behavior was embarrassing the franchise that had given him an $11.25 million signing bonus, and his sometimes atrocious play certainly wasn't making up for it.

So hold those comparisons between Manning and Leaf. Leaf might not take another snap until next week or the week after; he might not take one until next year.

This is where Leaf's NFL's education really begins. So far, Leaf sounds like he's starting to learn something. The Chargers, who still think he's going to be a savior and not another Kerry Collins or Rick Mirer, are holding their breath that he really is.

Leaf didn't pout as he watched the Chargers beat Baltimore 14-13 last Sunday. It was the first time in 38 games, pro and college, that he didn't start.

He was upbeat the next day as he described how his perspective had changed by watching instead of playing.

He appeared to have seen the big picture, too. This city, which embraced Leaf long before the Chargers made him the second pick in the draft, right behind Manning, has turned.

It was one thing when fans booed a Make-A-Wish Foundation ad on the video screen in the fourth quarter of a loss to the New York Giants on Sept. 27. Leaf was on he bench, having been pulled after throwing four interceptions.

But for the last couple of weeks, the letters to the editor in the Sunday newspaper have been scathing, ripping the QB's immature behavior and cocky attitude.

"When people write in and say they're disappointed because of me, I feel bad in that case," Leaf said. "I feel bad we may lose season ticket holders. We can't have that happen."

"We've got to prove to everybody, first of all starting with me, that I'm going to go out and work hard and try to win for this franchise and win for this city, and to do that we have to get past all the negative things."

Does it sound like there's hope for Leaf?

"As long as it wasn't pre-written by somebody in the organization," Hall of Famer Dan Fouts said when told of Leaf's conciliatory remarks.

It apparently was quite an admission for Leaf to make.

"I've always been a stubborn guy and you've got to beat me up before I'll start doing something," Leaf said as the Chargers prepared for their second game without him, against the Kansas City Chiefs.

Also, something he's wanted badly for a long time, then had for nine Sundays, is no longer his.

"You come to the realization that being a starting quarterback in the NFL is a wonderful thing, and once it's taken away from you, through injuries or retirement or demotion, you miss it and you want it back," Fouts said. "You only get so many shots at it. I'm not sure anybody under the age of 30 realizes that."

Leaf was shown the bench for a number of reasons. On the field, he threw 13 interceptions and just two TD passes, and had a 39.9 passer rating, worst in the NFL.

There was the locker-room tirade against a reporter that was captured on videotape. There were reports of Leaf's obnoxious behavior while bar-hopping in Pullman, Wash., on a weekend when he donated $200,000 to his old school, Washington State.

While the Chargers were reluctant to take a hard stance after Leaf's blowup with the reporter, they finally had to tell him to grow up after the Pullman incidents, which Leaf denied happened. The following Sunday, he had another poor performance in a loss at Denver.

"It is a big deal and it becomes a big deal with some of his teammates," general manager Bobby Beathard said. "You don't want him to lose them all."

"I think it (the benching) is for his benefit," added Beathard, who made a huge pre-draft deal with Arizona to move up just one spot in the draft to take Leaf. "There's no question in our mind that he will be successful."

The final decision to pull the plug was made by interim head coach June Jones, who's perhaps best-known for his sideline run-in at Atlanta with another petulant quarterback, Jeff George.

Jones said Leaf needs to go through this process in order to turn it around.

"Part of that is owning up to your mistakes," Jones said. "I don't think he's had ny problem in understanding that maybe he wishes he would have handled some things differently."

On Monday, Leaf finally admitted as much, saying he regretted the off-field problems.

"You just want to make sure you learn from them and not try to even put yourself in situations like that ever again," he said.

Fouts, who played for the Chargers for 15 years, wasn't surprised when Leaf was benched.

"I think it was time for him to step back and observe and maybe take some pressure off and see if he can learn that way," Fouts said. "Right now, Craig's a better quarterback. He has a better grasp of the offense and a better idea of where his guys are."

Like any other backup, Leaf is always just one play away from getting back in. For now, his job is to watch and learn.

"I thought Craig did some good things and I don't see a reason to change that right now," Jones said.

Leaf hopes he gets another shot this year. "But I don't want to hold the team back in any way," he said. "Craig stood in there and played really well."

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