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Painful Return for Leaf

Pro football: Making his first start since 1998, Charger quarterback is knocked out of game three times and can't make key plays as Raiders win, 9-6.


OAKLAND — The cloth dummy in the No. 16 jersey was battered and limp by the end of the third quarter, and the Raider fans who dangled it over the rail in the end zone almost seemed to lose interest for a while.

Ryan Leaf, starting at quarterback for the San Diego Chargers for the first time since Nov. 8, 1998, threw three interceptions and lost one of his two fumbles in his return, a 9-6 loss to the Raiders in front of 56,373 Sunday at Network Associates Coliseum.

Like the dummy the fans flung against the rail, Leaf took his hits.

The Raider defense knocked him out of the game three times--once on a flagrant late hit by defensive end Regan Upshaw that left Leaf with stitches in his chin--and sacked him twice, putting him on his back another half-dozen times.

But Leaf--who will have his left hand X-rayed today but could play even if it's broken because it's not his throwing hand--kept coming back.

He engineered a fourth-quarter drive that briefly made it look as if the Chargers might win in his return when they took a 6-2 lead with 9:41 left on Robert Chancey's three-yard run. A two-point conversion attempt failed.

But it was a Raider newcomer who decided the game.

Andre Rison--released by the Kansas City Chiefs during the preseason and picked up by the Raiders despite legal problems in four states, caught a 10-yard touchdown pass from Rich Gannon with 2:37 left, and the Raiders held on after Leaf threw his final interception on fourth and one with 1:31 to play.

Rison, a Raider.

Even he said it only seemed appropriate.

"It feels great," said Rison, whose legal difficulties include a $34,000 claim for unpaid child support as well as charges he wrote $158,000 in bad checks to a jewelry store. "It's something I've always wanted to be as a child growing up, and it's finally come true."

The touchdown came on a drive keyed by Gannon's 14-yard gain after he fumbled at midfield, recovered the ball and scrambled all the way to the San Diego 36.

Five plays later--including a five-yard run on third and one by Tyrone Wheatley--Gannon found Rison open in the right corner of the end zone.

"I have no idea how it worked out. He wasn't even supposed to be in on the play," Gannon said. "He ran a great route and they got confused and he put a move on the guy."

It was a strange game to open the season.

Neither team scored in the first half--and the Raiders' first-round pick Sebastian Janikowski botched his first field-goal attempt, a 41-yard miss that was wide left in the second quarter.

The Raiders broke through in the third quarter after pinning the Chargers at their own two-yard line after a punt, then gang-tackling Chancey in the end zone two plays later for a 2-0 lead.

Darrell Russell was given credit for the safety.

Leaf had his moments, completing 17 of 39 passes for 180 yards and hitting hands on a number of incompletions, though he tended to throw high.

But the turnovers were killer, and they have been a pattern in his short career. He threw 15 interceptions as a rookie in 1998 before inconsistent play and off-field behavior knocked him from the starter's job. He missed last season because of shoulder surgery.

"His play was erratic, but I also thought he made some good plays and kept battling," Charger Coach Mike Riley said. "I think he can use this game to get better."

Leaf called it "a tough loss."

"Yeah, one [solid] drive," he said. "That's the thing. Only one."

Leaf had the Chargers in scoring position early with a first-quarter drive to the Oakland 34, but his pass to Curtis Conway--who made his Charger debut after missing the exhibition season because of a hamstring injury--was tipped, and Marquez Pope intercepted it.

A third-quarter drive ended with a Leaf fumble at the Oakland 15.

The Raiders' Lance Johnstone knocked the ball loose from behind as Leaf prepared to throw, and Upshaw recovered.

Riley challenged the play, contending it should have been an incomplete pass, but the call was upheld after video review.

Leaf didn't give the Chargers the lift they needed, but he never lost his composure during his comeback, and the fact that he kept returning when Moses Moreno spelled him a few plays impressed some of his teammates.

"The guy, he's a competitor," guard Kevin Gogan said. "He took a cheap shot and bounced back. Some other guys would, but some guys wouldn't."

Leaf was down on the field for several minutes after the hit by Upshaw in the first quarter.

"I don't think it was the lateness as much as the way he went after my head with his helmet," Leaf said.

The Chargers' fourth-quarter lead didn't stand up because they didn't use enough clock on a three-and-out drive and had a failed fourth-down play--a pass attempt after a failed third-down play that was reviewed and upheld.

"We had a very high-percentage play," Riley said, but Leaf's pass was picked off by William Thomas for the last of Leaf's three interceptions.

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