Upon learning that a reporter was working on a Leaf story, another Chargers veteran said with disdain, "Rip his ass off. Kid's got the world by the balls, and he doesn't even know it."
Since Jones benched him after a Nov. 8 loss to the Denver Broncos, Leaf has had plenty of time to reflect. He knows he has lost his teammates' confidence and is itching to win it back. Admitting that he was ceded the starting job "based on where I was drafted," he says, "now I want to earn it. I want my teammates to want me in there. I want to deserve to be in there."
Or does he? Citing unnamed players, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported on Monday that Leaf has fallen asleep in meetings and, since being pulled, has been going through the motions in practice. "I don't think he's learned a thing since he was benched," said one Charger.
After the preseason Leaf hardly looked like a player who would be relegated to the sideline so soon. He carved up the San Francisco 49ers in his first exhibition game, passing for 116 yards and two touchdowns in the first half. In another preseason game he outplayed Peyton Manning, whom the Indianapolis Colts had selected with the first pick of the draft. Leaf's statistics going into the regular season were solid: 49 completions in 81 attempts (60.5%) for 580 yards, two touchdowns and a pair of interceptions.
"He had a good preseason and then threw a couple picks in our opener," says Jones, who was hired as quarterbacks coach to groom Leaf. Those interceptions, in a 16-14 win over the Buffalo Bills in San Diego, "surprised him," Jones says. "All of a sudden he was a little fragile, a little more tentative."
Yet Leaf bounced back the next week, completing 13 of 24 passes for 179 yards and no interceptions in a 13-7 road defeat of the Tennessee Oilers. Not noted for his swiftness, the 6'5", 240-pound Leaf nevertheless ran 20 yards to the Tennessee one-yard line on a third-and-nine play to set up the winning touchdown. "I kind of thought, We're on our way," says Jones.
The Chargers were on their way—into a Stephen King novella, into the crawl space of the AFC West standings, into a four-game losing streak during which Leaf would come unglued, on and off the field, and coach Kevin Gilbride would lose his job. Here are the lowlights.
•Sept. 20: Leaf completes 1 of 15 passes, throws two interceptions and loses three fumbles in a 23-7 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. Afterward he reams out a team cameraman for standing too close to his locker.
•Sept. 21: With at least one camera rolling in the locker room, Leaf goes ballistic on Union-Tribune writer Jay Posner, who had written about the previous day's ballistics. The video clip, featuring Leaf calling Posner a "f———b—-", gets national play.
•Sept. 27: Four more interceptions in a 34-16 beating by the New York Giants leave Leaf near tears and questioning his ability to play in the NFL.