•Sept. 28: After apologizing for his boorish behavior to the media, Leaf tosses the written copy of his statement into his locker.
•Oct. 11: Leaf chalks up three more interceptions in a 7-6 loss to the Oakland Raiders, giving him 12 in his first six games.
Looking back, Leaf said last week, "I probably shouldn't have played in the K.C. game"—because he had been hospitalized for one night with an infected leg during the week before the game—"but I'm so damn competitive that I did. Played the whole game with a fever. Didn't help that it rained the whole time, either."
The events of those two days—Leaf's implosion versus the Chiefs and his explosion a day later—defined his rookie year, in the opinion of his agent, Leigh Steinberg. "Ryan has this idea that he performs best when he's in a corner, fighting his way out," says Steinberg. "After the Kansas City incident, he withdrew into a shell. He felt the world had been unfair to him. People ask me, 'What are you telling Ryan?' and I say, 'I'd tell him a lot if I could get him on the phone.' "
Leaf's mule-headedness can be a good thing, according to Jones. "The reason he's had some success is because he believes he can do anything, and he's not afraid to try it," says Jones. "He's got a toughness about him, a different mental approach than other guys. At the same time, you've got to channel that off the field."
Which brings us to the events of Oct. 29 and 30 in Pullman, Wash. Leaf went into the Chargers' bye weekend on a small roll, having thrown for a career-high 281 yards in a 27-20 loss to the Seahawks on the previous Sunday. He was returning to his old campus to donate $200,000 to Washington State—half of it to fund a scholarship in the name of Andrew Rypien, the son of former Cougars quarterback Mark Rypien who had died of cancer in August. Only an epic screwup by Leaf could eclipse the positive publicity sure to result from his philanthropy. He was up to the task.
Shakers is a cavernous Pullman watering hole favored by students. The place was packed when Leaf rolled in with a small entourage on the night of Oct. 29. Things turned ugly after Chris Cashman, a senior, asked Leaf to pose with him for a picture. Cashman hosts Nite Lite, a weekly comedy show on Washington State's cable channel. When Leaf learned that Cashman had poked fun at him on the air, the two had words. According to several students, Leaf then doused a group of Cashman's friends with a pitcher of beer.
This was but one of several allegations of loutish behavior—he was reportedly kicked out of Shakers, another bar and a convenience store—leveled at Leaf after his visit to Pullman. "All the accusations that were made, I didn't do one of those things," Leaf says. That he denies tossing the beer comes as a mild surprise to junior Jeff Dooley, who says he was one of the people Leaf soaked. "Believe me, he threw beer on us," says Dooley. How did Dooley respond? "I looked at my buddy, and we both started laughing. You want to like Leaf because he got us to the Rose Bowl last year, but he makes it tough because he's such a jackass."
Word of Leaf's antics made its way to San Diego. When Jones decided to replace Leaf with Whelihan, he cited Leaf's behavior in Pullman as part of the reason for the decision. That benching ended—for this year, at least—the unofficial competition between Leaf and Manning, who has blossomed into a savvy passer. "Peyton has exceeded our expectations," gushes Colts president Bill Polian, "but that's what happens with guys who have terrific work habits and terrific intelligence."
O.K., Bill, we get your point. Manning is 22 going on 42; Leaf is 22 going on 16. Polian is certain that Leaf would have benefited from another year in college, just as he believes Leaf can overcome his rocky NFL start. New England Patriots director of player personnel Bobby Grier agrees, saying, "If you take your time with Leaf, you're going to have yourself a great quarterback."