For young QBs, cheers to jeers NFL: Ryan Leaf's tantrums (( are compounding his problems, but neither he nor Peyton Manning is finding pro ball easy as the two top draft picks face each other for the first time today.

October 04, 1998|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

The men who mine the college ranks for NFL talent could see it coming.

From the 20 pounds Ryan Leaf put on shortly after Washington State played in the Rose Bowl, to standing up two Indianapolis Colts executives on a scheduled interview, to performing a "Hulk" pose on stage at the league's combine meetings.

All of it foretold the bigger problem Leaf would face when he finally hunched behind an NFL center and barked out signals: Immaturity. It showed in everything the 22-year-old quarterback did and didn't do.

Five weeks into his rookie season with the San Diego Chargers, Leaf has rewritten the book on boorish behavior.

Going into today's game against Peyton Manning and the Colts, Leaf already has cursed out a cameraman, spewed a profanity-filled tirade at a reporter, told the Kansas City Chiefs he was tired of hearing about their fans and their defense, and been booed by his home crowd -- in only his second game.

The histrionics don't surprise anyone who caught his act before all this unfolded.

"That was the way people felt coming out of the draft," said Terry Bradway, director of player personnel for the Chiefs. "With Ryan, maturity will be a factor and the primary reason why he struggles early. But his physical skills will turn him into a good quarterback.

"There's a fine line between confidence and cockiness. You have to have it, and he does. But he's got to learn how to channel it into a positive, not a negative."

Leaf has been trampling that line ever since he went to Indianapolis last February for the combine, a veritable meat market for NFL personnel men.

His performance there assured him of going second behind Manning in the April draft, if it had not already been decided. He stood up Colts president Bill Polian and coach Jim Mora after a private meeting had been arranged.

Worse yet, Leaf weighed in at 261 pounds -- 20 over his playing weight -- and scouts immediately questioned his commitment.

"The difference between the two guys coming out is what you're seeing now," said Don Strock, Ravens quarterbacks coach who attended the combine and talked with Leaf and Manning. "One guy was a little more aloof about things. The other guy was a serious guy who was much more mature than his age. [Leaf] was younger than his age.

"There is a maturation thing that goes on. Look at Peyton's background with his father, Archie. He knows what to expect. Who played under the pressure of the Heisman? Who came back for his fourth year? He did what he felt was right, and you have to respect that."

Manning, who at 22 is seven weeks and three days older than Leaf, has a decided advantage in maturity level. But, like virtually every quarterback who has started as a rookie, he has struggled on the field.

Manning's quarterback rating of 52.1 ranks 28th among the league's 30 starters. He leads the league with 11 interceptions and the AFC with 922 passing yards. Completing 55.5 percent of his throws, he has twice passed for more than 300 yards. But the bottom line is his 0-4 record.

Leaf is 2-2, having won his first two games before imploding at Kansas City (1-for-15 for 4 yards with five turnovers) and throwing four interceptions against the New York Giants.

He has one touchdown and eight interceptions, hitting 43.3 percent. His quarterback rating of 32.1 is the worst in the league. His off-field problems coincided with the two losses.

"Talent-wise, I don't know if there's that much difference between the two," Strock said. "I'm not so sure that down the road -- five, six years -- Leaf may not be better. You don't know that."

Today's game at the RCA Dome not only will showcase the top two picks in this year's draft, but will offer an update on which team got the better quarterback. San Diego won a preseason game in Indianapolis, 33-3, when Leaf was booed in pregame introductions and, predictably, mocked the Colts fans. He did not hide his preference for San Diego in the days before the draft.

Who turns out to be the more worthy quarterback is a debate that likely will take years to answer. Polian remains confident he got the right man.

"This is what has to happen to him," Polian said of Manning. "We knew he was going to struggle. He's playing the toughest position in the league, and the salary cap forces him to learn as he plays. I have no doubt Peyton will justify everything we saw in him."

Because the Colts gave Manning a six-year contract worth $42.7 million, they had to jettison veteran Jim Harbaugh's $3 million-a-year contract in a trade with the Ravens.

Polian insists that it would be wrong to bench Manning to avoid the early tribulations.

"There's no way he could gain the experience necessary against modern blitzing defenses by holding a clipboard on the sidelines and watching," Polian said.

Instead, those modern, zone blitzes are eating up both Manning and Leaf. Uncertainty breeds turnovers.

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