Leaf was hailed as a savior when the Chargers took him with the second pick overall in the 1998 draft, right after Indianapolis took Peyton Manning. Instead, he quickly turned into a distraction with his poor play on the field and his boorish behavior off it.
Leaf was on his honeymoon in Tahiti and hadn't yet heard the news, said his agent, Leigh Steinberg.
"I had prepared him for the fact that he probably would not be with the Chargers next season," Steinberg said from his office in Newport Beach, Calif.
Leaf leaves the Chargers with a 4-14 record as a starter, having thrown 33 interceptions and just 13 touchdown passes. But the Chargers still owe him the final $2.95 million installment of his $11.25 million signing bonus, which was part of a deal potentially worth $31.25 million that he signed in July 1998.
The Chargers will take a $3.8 million hit against the salary cap this season by releasing Leaf, but obviously felt it was worth it.
The Chargers also released four other players: cornerbacks DeRon Jenkins and Darryll Lewis, running back Robert Chancey and Kevin Gogan.
"We are preparing for free agency and the draft and this allows these players to catch on with another team," Butler said in a statement. "We wish them well."
The Chargers signed quarterback Dave Dickenson from the Calgary Stampeders to a two-year contract just a few hours before releasing Leaf. Dickenson preceded Leaf as quarterback at Charles M. Russell High in Great Falls, Mont., in the early 1990s, and the two lived just a few blocks apart.
"It's kind of ironic, the timing of it," Dickenson said from Calgary, where he had played in the CFL for five years. "From the outside looking in, it probably was the best thing for him. It just happens that I felt my opportunity was in San Diego, and I'm going to try and make that team. Whether he was there or not, I'm going to come in with the same mindset."
Dickenson will earn close to the NFL minimum salaries, but the contract has performance bonuses that could make it worth $2.45 million.
The Chargers own the top pick in April's draft and are known to be extremely interested in Michael Vick, the sensational quarterback who is leaving Virginia Tech after two seasons. The Chargers also are likely to sign a veteran NFL free agent.
Leaf seemed to have gotten his career back on track when he won back the starting job last summer. But he was benche after throwing five interceptions and just one TD in the first two games. Although he started the final six games, he never did regain the respect of his teammates.
One of the clinchers last season came when reports surfaced the Leaf played golf even while telling the team his sprained right wrist was too sore to practice or play.
Leaf even managed to get in trouble when he was sidelined after shoulder surgery in 1999. During training camp he was forced away from a confrontation with a heckler, and that November he was suspended for four weeks without pay for shouting obscenities at then-general manager Bobby Beathard.
Leaf's downfall began after just three games, when he screamed obscenities at a reporter during a locker room blowup, portions of which were caught on videotape.
"I think that he had the bad misfortune to be caught on camera yelling at the reporter," Steinberg said. "That set an image and a tone for the way in which he was perceived. That was difficult to erase."
Steinberg thinks Leaf still has the potential for a great career.
"Clearly, teams will be interested but the process will have to be an extremely careful and extremely meticulous one," he said.
Steinberg pointed to another of his clients, Kerry Collins, who went from troubled quarterback to leading the New York Giants into the Super Bowl.
"Let's remember that Ryan's problems are not those of substance abuse or violations of laws," the agent said. "He had some adjustment problems that often happen in the early parts of players' careers and hopefully those are behind him and he'll have a new attitude and get a fresh start."
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