The game was over, the game had just begun. Agent Leigh Steinberg leaned against a wall in the guts of Qualcomm Stadium on Sunday and played spin doctor. Yes, his client, San Diego Chargers rookie quarterback Ryan Leaf, had struggled in his first NFL game, throwing a pair of interceptions plus two picks that were erased by penalties against the Buffalo Bills. What of it? The Chargers had squeezed by with a 16-14 victory. Besides, such mistakes were to be expected from a first-year guy.
"I saw it with a young Drew Bledsoe, a young Troy Aikman, a young Steve Young," said Steinberg, dropping the names of some of his higher-profile clients. "To produce a superstar quarterback, the team has to bear with him through some games that are"—he paused to choose his words carefully—"less than elegant."
Let that phrase serve to sum up Leaf's NFL debut, in which the former Washington State quarterback bobbled the snap on his first regular-season play and had to call timeout after his second, because he was unable to hear the next play being radioed in. The audio problem persisted throughout the game: As Leaf covered his ears to better hear the incoming instructions, he resembled the despairing subject of Edvard Munch's painting The Scream. Yet it was the Bills who left the field looking stricken, after Steve Christie botched a last-second 39-yard field goal attempt that would have won the game.
Leaf was erratic, but he made more plays than mistakes, completing 16 of 31 passes for 192 yards and a touchdown. Afterward he insisted, "I don't care if I go 2 for 40. If we win, it doesn't matter."
What does matter, says Chargers coach Kevin Gilbride, is that Leaf get better at "seeing the whole field, seeing his keys, getting into his progression. Ryan doesn't always do that. But it's coming. He's making progress."
Some of it's coming the hard way. Take his second interception. Rolling right, Leaf threw across his body toward the middle of the field. "I might have gotten away with that in college," he said afterward, "but up here that's not gonna cut it. The defensive backs close on the ball a lot quicker."
As the locker room emptied, he sat on a stool and studied a stat sheet. "Oh, god, look at this," he moaned. "Two for 10 on third-down conversions." Someone pointed out that his receivers had dropped at least three balls on third downs. Leaf pretended not to hear. "This shows I'm friggin' terrible," he said.
He is under instructions from the coaches to be self-deprecating, an act that occasionally gets old. After throwing for 200 yards in a preseason half against the St. Louis Rams, Leaf was highly critical of himself. When a reporter pointed out the good things he had done, Leaf said, "Would you just let me get down on myself?"
In the Bills locker room, free safety Kurt Schulz was not inclined to let Leaf get down on himself. "There's only one number that matters," Schulz said. "The guy's 1-0."