Ryan Leaf's injury may be a blessing in disguise for the Chargers
Be honest. You're going to miss Chargers quarterback Ryan Leaf this season. Without Leaf's nodding off in meetings and reportedly getting tossed out of bars, throwing tantrums and grotesque interceptions, the NFL is a less interesting place. Often a boor, Leaf was never boring.
At the Chargers' training camp last week, it appeared that those least likely to miss him are his teammates. They were far from devastated by the news that surgery on July 26 to repair torn cartilage in Leaf's right shoulder will probably sideline him for the season. There even seemed to be a sense of relief that the team would be spared the kind of distractions that Leaf created during his tumultuous 1998 rookie season. While producing an abysmal 39.0 quarterback rating on the field—the worst by a regular since 1976—he behaved abominably off it.
Leaf first hurt the shoulder diving on a loose ball at a June minicamp. Although he missed three of the four throwing sessions that first-year coach Mike Riley had set up for him and wideout Charlie Jones later in the off-season, Leaf assured reporters that he'd been throwing 100 balls a day in the weeks leading up to camp. Then came the injury.
"This could be the best thing that's ever happened to him," Chargers punter Darren Bennett says. "It's a chance to prove everyone wrong. Hopefully he'll take the rehab seriously and come back with a vengeance."
No rush, Ryan. On July 22, the day before Leaf left practice clutching his shoulder in pain, San Diego general manager Bobby Beathard signed Erik Kramer, who'd been cut by the Bears earlier in the week. Considering the events of the following day, the timing of Kramer's signing made one wonder: Did the Chargers have an inkling that Leaf's shoulder was unsound? "We really didn't," says Riley, whom Beathard hired from Oregon State. "It was blind luck." San Diego had already acquired Jim Harbaugh in a March trade with the Baltimore Ravens. Harbaugh was the projected starter even before Leaf's injury.
Despite having an early run-in with Leaf, who made headlines again when he missed three days of a minicamp in late spring, Riley has been gentle in his handling of the team's enfant terrible. "Ryan's not unlike a lot of kids his age," says Riley, "and there are plenty of great examples [for him to follow] on this team, if he'd just pay close attention."
While no one has gone on record as saying "Good riddance," Leaf's teammates are delighted to have a pair of veteran quarterbacks to lead the offense. Says one player, "It'll be nice having a guy who throws to the right-colored jersey." Adds left tackle John Jackson, "There's so much difference between this year and last, I can't tell you."
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