Leaf, who has been rehabilitating his bad-boy image along with his surgically repaired right shoulder, on Saturday regained the San Diego Chargers' starting quarterback job that he lost during his tumultuous rookie season of 1998.
"I'm happy. I feel very fortunate that I'm getting the opportunity," said Leaf, who has been doing and saying all the right things this summer. "For me, it's just a wonderful opportunity."
When last seen in the regular season, Leaf was taking a knee to end an embarrassing 38-17 loss at Seattle on Dec. 13, 1998. Leaf had come on for an ineffective Craig Whelihan and proceeded to make the final three of his 19 turnovers. His final rookie line: two touchdown passes, 15 interceptions, four lost fumbles and a ton of off-field trouble.
Leaf's comeback will began Sunday at Oakland, where in the last two seasons the Chargers have played two of their most brutal games in recent memory.
Leaf bruised his right hand in Friday night's exhibition finale, but said he was able to grip a football Saturday morning and expects no problems.
While he squandered the opportunity he had after being taken with the second pick overall in the 1998 draft, Leaf has played his way back into the starting job. He opened camp as the third-stringer, and because of questions about his shoulder, coach Mike Riley kept saying that Leaf was the "X factor" in the quarterback competition among Leaf, Jim Harbaugh and Moses Moreno.
Leaf seemed almost subdued Saturday, showing no signs of his rookie brashness.
"The way it's played out is always the way I wanted it," said Leaf, who missed last season after tearing cartilage in his shoulder in the first 20 minutes of training camp and undergoing surgery. "It was given to me in my rookie year. Now it looks great in the order it went. I was able to build myself up and earn it and that's what feels great to me."
Although Riley wanted the competition to play itself out through the final exhibition game, it's been apparent for a week that the job was Leaf's.
"I had a real good feeling after he went 9-for-9 against Atlanta," Riley said. Leaf, who played the first half of that game Aug. 18, finished 14-of-20 for 167 yards and one touchdown. In four exhibitions, he was 40-of-63 for 447 yards and three TDs with two interceptions.
The most surprising part of Riley's announcement Saturday is that Harbaugh, 36, is the third-stringer. Moreno, who like Leaf is entering his third NFL season, is No. 2.
This is a huge comeback for Leaf, considering that it was just less than 10 months ago that he was suspended for four weeks for cursing at then-general manager Bobby Beathard.
In early spring, Leaf complained his passes lacked zip following surgery in January to clean out his shoulder, and he annoyed the organization when he stopped showing up for offseason workouts.
But he did rehab his shoulder hard in Birmingham, Ala., under the watch of noted orthopedic surgeon James Andrews.
"Dr. Andrews always said, `There's no doubt you'll play this year,' " Leaf said. "That was always in the back of my mind. Expectations for me to be at this point were out of the ordinary, the way we were two months ago.
"I knew it was getting better. It was just a matter of me getting on the football field and playing again and hopefully feeling everything and sure enough, it felt good."
Said Riley: "As soon as Ryan sort of confirmed his physical capabilities, it became more apparent" that he would be the starter. "Physically, he's got a lot of tools."
But Leaf proved in 1998 that he wasn't grasping the mental side. He made news with boorish off-field behavior and teammates complained about his lack of preparation. He was benched after making nine starts, and would make only one more appearance after that.
Leaf said last week that there are now a number of calming influences in his life, including his fiancée, a former Chargers cheerleader. The first thing new quarterbacks coach Mike Johnson did was sit down with Leaf to help him do a better job of reading defenses.
Riley promised there wouldn't be a quick hook if Leaf gets into trouble.
"I don't start guys with the expectation of taking them out," he said.
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