What's been a foregone conclusion for weeks became official Wednesday -- Ryan Leaf is the San Diego Chargers' starting quarterback.
The decision by coach Kevin Gilbride goes way beyond Saturday night's exhibition opener against the San Francisco 49ers. Leaf, the second pick in the April draft, has the job for the year, making him the first rookie in team history to go into a season holding the top spot.
"He's the guy we think gives us the best chance to win," said Gilbride, who presided over a disastrous 4-12 season in 1997.
"I didn't leave college early so I could sit on the bench for a year," Leaf said after his first practice as starter. "This is what I wanted to do."
It took the Chargers just 11 training camp practices -- Leaf missed the first five while his contract was worked out -- for Leaf to beat out incumbent starter Craig Whelihan.
"I think they just felt I grasped the offense pretty quickly and I continue to improve every day, and they see potential, I guess," said the 6-foot-5 Leaf, who turned pro after taking Washington State to the Rose Bowl as a junior. "That's what I hope they're seeing. I hope it's not out of desperation, because I think everybody has had a good camp throwing the football."
The Chargers have invested heavily in Leaf, who's from Great Falls, Mont. Just to move up one spot in the draft, they gave Arizona wide receiver Eric Metcalf and linebacker Patrick Sapp, plus this year's first- and second-round picks and next year's No. 1. Then they gave him an $11.25 million signing bonus as part of a contract that could be worth $31.25 million over five seasons.
When the Chargers failed to add a veteran in the offseason, it became clearer that Leaf would get the starting job. Whelihan, 0-7 in relief of Stan Humphries at the end of last season, didn't put in the offseason work that the coachig staff expected.
"I felt they were letting me get enough reps to compete with Ryan," Whelihan said. "Being the second pick in the first round, there's a little bit of pressure for the organization to put (him) out on the field and see what he can do. Myself, if I'm in the organization, I'd want to see him out on the field, too. But I'm not going to give up by any means."
The big concern now is that Leaf not get hurt and that his confidence doesn't get battered by growing pains. San Diego has a rebuilt line and brought back running back Natrone Means to help take some pressure off Leaf.
Even so, the Chargers think Leaf has the right temperament to handle the job.
"Sometimes I don't know if he knows what he's in for, but that's the important thing," Gilbride said. "He's not overwhelmed by it, he's not intimidated by it, he's not in awe of it. He's excited about it. Those are the kind of guys you want out there."
Said General Manager Bobby Beathard: "I think he's realistic. He knows it's not going to be easy, but at the same time, I think he's going to surprise some people."
As soon as he found out he'd won the job, Leaf called his father.
"He said, `I knew,'" Leaf said.
"I'm in the position I wanted to be in, so I feel real comfortable with it," Leaf said.
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