The apparent end of Leaf's "adolescence," as Seau calls it, came after he received the grade-school-style upbraiding from McCrary, who chided his teammate for being fat and out of shape. "You don't need to be going to this and that [function]," McCrary told Leaf during an off-season workout last spring. "You need to be here, busting your ass like we do every day."
Says Seau, "That was a loud cry saying, 'Get right,' because a lot of guys in here were fed up. We're not as political with one another as we are with the media. Some people can handle the truth, others can't."
Leaf reacted by going into a self-imposed exile. He stopped showing up at the Chargers' practice facility and told coach Mike Riley that he feared his shoulder would never fully recover. Leaf decided to travel to the Birmingham clinic of James Andrews, the renowned orthopedist, who instructed him to stop throwing for several months.
When he finally picked up a football, on June 8, Leaf stood inside a mechanics laboratory at Andrews's clinic and zinged passes at an unlucky staff technician. "Eventually he just ran to where I wanted to throw it and let the balls fall into the net behind him," Leaf says. "I banged his hands up pretty good, but he couldn't really tell me if my velocity was all the way back."
While visiting Idaho's Coeur d'Alene Lake a few weeks later, Leaf threw to childhood buddy Curt Brown, who had trained with Leaf during the summer before his freshman season at Washington State. "Curt said it looked like I was putting too much of my arm into the ball," Leaf says. "Before the injury I would just fling it, and it looked like my arm didn't even move."
When training camp began in July, the La Jolla air was filled with whistles—from Leaf's spirals and from his awestruck teammates. Remember, many scouts regarded Leaf as more physically gifted than the man drafted ahead of him, Peyton Manning, now an All-Pro for the Indianapolis Colts. As camp began, Leaf was viewed by Riley as an afterthought in an expected quarterback battle between aging incumbent Harbaugh and third-year backup Moses Moreno, but he overwhelmed the competition with his superior physical skills, even though he still lacked polish.
"He looked a lot better than I expected," says cornerback Ray Buchanan of the Atlanta Falcons, against whom Leaf completed his first nine passes (and 14 of 20 overall, for 167 yards and a touchdown) in an Aug. 18 game. "He's got great skills, and in terms of demeanor, he seemed like a totally different guy than what I'd seen and heard."
Beathard says the 6'5", 235-pound Leaf "is what you look for in a quarterback. He's a big guy who can be oblivious to the rush, and he's amazingly accurate when he's pressured. I know it's the preseason, but I've seen him go through his reads nicely and make throws that others can't."
The scary thing is that Leaf's arm isn't all the way back yet. He says his velocity is "85 to 95 percent of normal. The more I throw, the more I'll work the arm back into shape. But as long as my footwork's good, what I've got now is good enough. The injury has helped me make better decisions. Before I had this arrogance that I could just put the ball in the smallest of openings."
Leaf appears to have shed some of his off-field cockiness as well. He lauds his offensive linemen at every turn, raves about the talents of Harbaugh and Moreno, and praises Riley and Mike Johnson, his new quarterbacks coach. He says things like, "I just want to play football and help the team win," and teammates say he's trying hard to be one of the guys. Once boastful and defensive, he's now benign and boring. Won't the real Slim Shady please stand up?