With Leaf falling, Whelihan gets charged up Rookie QB's troubles give backup 2nd shot

November 12, 1998|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

Craig Whelihan is tired of seeing the numbers 0-7 next to his name.

Whelihan lost all of his seven starts for the San Diego Chargers last year and went back to the bench this season when the team traded a king's ransom to Arizona to move up one spot in the draft and select Ryan Leaf as their quarterback of the future.

They gave Leaf a $31.25 million contract that included an $11.25 million signing bonus.

Leaf is on the cover of their media guide while Whelihan, the 197th player picked in the draft -- sixth round -- in 1995 out of Pacific, has his profile on Page 146. He's making $400,000 in his fourth season.

Despite all that, when the Chargers play host to the Ravens on Sunday, Whelihan will be No. 1.

Coach June Jones decided this week to bench Leaf, who has been beset by on- and off-the-field problems.

Whelihan couldn't be more excited about the chance to prove he's better than he showed last season.

"I'm ready," he said. "I've been ready. Now that I've gotten the opportunity, I'm going to make the most of it. I fully expect to win. I want this game real bad, real bad."

The Ravens, though, probably would have been better off if Jones would have stuck with Leaf one more week.

Leaf was yanked by Jones on Sunday against Denver after he completed four of 15 passes for 23 net yards and threw one interception.

Even more upsetting to the Chargers' front office has been Leaf's conduct off the field.

He has become virtually the poster boy for today's rich, spoiled athletes who think they can get away with anything.

One Chargers fan wrote the San Diego Union-Tribune that he would no longer buy tickets because Leaf's "drunkenness, his swaggering abusiveness, his spitting, his assaultive violence and obscene gesturing directed at citizens here and elsewhere is turning off fans and community more than Chargers management might realize."

The fan also knocked Jones' "weak-kneed excuse making" and said general manager Bobby Beathard is "ultimately responsible for this situation."

It may or may not have been a coincidence, but Bobby Beathard and Dean Spanos, the son of owner Alex Spanos, both publicly criticized Leaf this week.

"A whole career could be crumbling if he doesn't wise up and understand he isn't handling things the right way," Beathard said.

Beathard's comments were significant because he fired coach Kevin Gilbride earlier this season because, among other things, Gilbride's offense was considered too complicated for the rookie and the coach was viewed as being too hard on Leaf.

Jones, noted for being a nice guy, took over on an interim basis and simplified things, but the approach didn't have much effect on Leaf on or off the field.

The last straw may have come when Leaf spent the bye weekend two weeks ago making a $200,000 donation for a scholarship endowment at his alma mater, Washington State, in the name of Andrew Rypien, the son of former NFL quarterback Mark Rypien. Andrew died of cancer two months ago at age 3.

But Leaf then spoiled the weekend by getting kicked out of two bars and a convenience store in Pullman, Wash.

A senior at the school, Nicole Sanders, said that when Leaf and his buddies were tossed out of one bar, they stood outside the establishment spitting on the window and making obscene gestures. On top of that, Leaf was flaunting his contract.

The Chargers were appalled at the reports, and Spanos said: "If, in fact, all of this is true, we legitimately would have a concern and need to address it with Ryan."

Leaf, meanwhile, seemed almost cavalier about the incidents.

He told Denver reporters before last week's game: "I'm not a very likable guy. I've always had a bad-boy image a little bit. That doesn't bother me."

Brushing off his run-ins with reporters, he said: "It's not like I was busted for drinking or doing drugs or beating up on my wife, the way a lot of athletes get in trouble."

When Leaf, who has two touchdown passes, 13 interceptions and a league-worst 39.9 quarterback rating, followed up the incidents with his poor performance against the Broncos, Beathard said the off-the-field problems may be affecting his play and are costing him the respect of his teammates.

Leaf responded to his benching by saying he had no regrets for what he's done and said, "You can't let it affect you confidence-wise."

The Chargers are hoping a seat on the bench will help mature Leaf, but they now have to count on Whelihan.

The frustrating thing for the Chargers is that they're 3-6, even though their defense is ranked No. 1 in the league and Natrone Means is second in the AFC in rushing with 878 yards.

Defense and running the ball are supposed to be the keys to winning, but San Diego has been undermined by its passing game, which ranks 29th in the league.

"I think we've got a shot to be a decent offense [with a passing game]," Jones said. "We've got a shot if we can make teams play us more honest" instead of only playing the run.

It's now up to Whelihan to provide the passing game. In three relief appearances this year, he has completed 22 of 44 passes, with two touchdowns and one interception, and his rating of 71.1 is close to double that of Leaf's.

"He's got as good an arm as anybody in the league," Jones said.

Regardless of his game performances, he's not likely to cause the team off-the-field headaches.

One San Diego columnist even called him a "gentleman."

Now he has to prove he's a quarterback.

Next for Ravens

Opponent: San Diego Chargers

Site: Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego

When: Sunday, 4: 05 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)

Line: Ravens by 1

Pub Date: 11/12/98

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