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PRO FOOTBALL WEEK 1

Hit and Miss

Pro football: Chargers struggle with Leaf, but come away with a 16-14 win over the Bills.

September 07, 1998|JERRY CROWE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — Nobody will deny that the San Diego Chargers' heralded rookie, Ryan Leaf, has the skills to be a great NFL quarterback.

But even the best players need a bit of luck to succeed.

Even Leaf would admit that after his NFL debut, a 16-14 victory over Buffalo on Sunday that overshadowed an improbable brilliant performance by the Bills' reserve quarterback, much-traveled Doug Flutie, and wasn't secure until Buffalo kicker Steve Christie, pulled a 39-yard field-goal attempt wide to the left in the closing seconds.

"Somebody was looking down on us today," said Leaf, the cocky first-year player from Washington State who seemed humbled by his rocky performance before 64,037 at Qualcomm Stadium.

Leaf, at 22 years three months the fifth-youngest quarterback to start an opening-day game since the NFL-AFL merger, completed 16 of 31 passes for 192 yards and a touchdown, with two interceptions.

But he had two other interceptions wiped out because of penalties.

The second, on a third-down play midway through the fourth quarter, was nullified by a late hit on the quarterback by strong safety Henry Jones that kept alive the game-winning drive.

Three players later, John Carney kicked his third field goal, a 54-yarder that bounced off the left upright with 4:30 remaining, to provide the final margin.

"It was a rookie performance," said Leaf, the second selection in the NFL draft last April and holder of a five-year contract that could be worth up to $31.5 million. "I did some good things, but I made a lot of mistakes."

Coach Kevin Gilbride called Leaf's debut "about what I expected.

"He's just got to worry about seeing things a little better and not being so determined to make things happen that he takes risks that he shouldn't take. It's just that he wants to make plays. He really wants to live up to the expectations of his teammates. It's really, really important to him that he perform well for them.

"But sometimes until you get enough confidence in yourself to let the game come to you, you're going to do stuff like that."

In that vein, he might want to study the perseverant Flutie.

The former Heisman Trophy winner waited nearly a decade for the NFL to come back to him in the form of a free-agent contract.

Flutie, 35, signed with the Bills last winter after an aborted start with the Chicago Bears and eight seasons in the Canadian Football League, including six as the league's most outstanding player, five as the CFL passing leader and three as a Grey Cup champion.

He was instantly relegated to a backup role a few weeks later when Buffalo gave up a first-round draft pick to acquire Rob Johnson from the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Johnson, who started only once in three seasons with the Jaguars, signed a five-year, $25-million contract and was anointed the Bills' starter.

On Sunday, though, they trailed, 10-0, when Johnson was knocked unconscious early in the third quarter on a vicious hit by San Diego defensive end William Fuller. Suffering from a concussion and a cut chin, Johnson left the game and never returned.

In came Flutie, who rallied the Bills while completing 12 of 20 passes for 158 yards and two touchdowns.

His first touchdown pass, a 43-yarder to Andre Reed, cut the Bills' deficit to 10-7 in the third quarter. His second, a five-yarder to Reed, gave them a 14-13 advantage with 9:05 to play.

"It was amazing," Gilbride said of Flutie's performance. "Of course, everything we had designed [defensively] was schemed for Rob, but [Flutie] started moving around and doing some things, and he gave them the spark they were looking for."

Unfortunately for Flutie, he was a teammate of Christie, who had earlier pushed a 21-yard field-goal attempt wide to the right, and not Carney, who was perfect on kicks from 48, 47 and 54 yards.

"Certainly," Gilbride said, "the performance of John Carney was magnificent."

Leaf agreed.

Asked what he was going to do with the game ball he clutched in his hands as he sprinted off the field at game's end, he smiled.

"I'm going to give it to John Carney," he said.

Maybe he should also send a couple to Buffalo, one care of Steve Christie and the other addressed to Henry Jones.

His debut just wouldn't have been the same without them.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Fresh Starts

Comparing the first starts of some quarterbacks who made the rare jump from college directly into a starting role:

Peyton Manning: 21-37, 302 yards, 1 TD, 3 int.; Colts lose to Dolphins, 24-15.

Ryan Leaf: 16-31, 192 yards, 1 TD, 2 int.; Chargers defeat Bills, 16-14

John Elway* (1983): 1-8, 14 yards, 0 TD, 1 int.; Broncos defeat Steelers, 14-10.

Troy Aikman (1989): 17-35, 180 yards, 0 TD, 2 int.; Cowboys lose to Saints, 28-0.

* --Elway was replaced by Steve DeBerg in the second half.

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