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Bucs take flyer on Leaf

Tampa Bay takes a low-risk shot with the troubled quarterback, but also appears in hot pursuit of Brad Johnson.

By RICK STROUD

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 3, 2001


TAMPA -- He was vacationing with his new wife in Tahiti on Friday and still unaware of being claimed off waivers by Tampa Bay.

But bad-boy quarterback Ryan Leaf won't have a honeymoon period with the Bucs, who say they are committed only to a brief attempt at salvaging his career after three turbulent seasons in San Diego.

The cost of acquiring Leaf, the second overall pick in the 1998 draft, was only the $100 waiver fee. And it has not deterred the Bucs' search for a big-name, veteran starting quarterback.

In fact, shortly after the signing period began midnight Friday, the Bucs contacted the agent for Redskins quarterback Brad Johnson.

The Bucs' biggest competition for Johnson is coming from the Ravens, who might be prepared to offer him close to $6-million a year and a signing bonus of around $8-million.

But the Bucs informed Johnson's agent, Phil Williams, that they will pay Johnson as the starter with Shaun King serving as the backup quarterback in 2001.

"They called me because they have a serious interest," Williams said. "Let's just say I'm very encouraged."

Leaf, 25, whose contract calls for a base salary of $1.5-million, would be a candidate for the third quarterback slot and could be asked to play for the fourth-year minimum salary of $418,000.

"We think it's a unique opportunity when a player of Ryan Leaf's ability is put on the wire and it allows a team an opportunity to claim him," Bucs general manager Rich McKay said. "We liked Ryan a lot coming out of college and have a pretty good understanding of some of the problems he's experienced over the last couple years. For us, this could be a short-term, free look. But his abilities warrant that we do our due diligence."

Johnson, 32, could have his choice of several teams, including Baltimore, Tampa Bay, Kansas City and Cincinnati.

Despite previous posturing, the Bucs quickly established themselves Friday in the market for a proven veteran starting quarterback.

While Johnson is a favorite of Ravens coach Brian Billick, who was offensive coordinator in Minnesota, the quarterback also has a close relationship with Bucs coach Tony Dungy, who was the Vikings defensive coordinator the first four years of Johnson's career and coached him in the Pro Bowl.

Like the Ravens, the Bucs have a young team with a dominating defense and would allow Johnson to make a homecoming of sorts, having played at Florida State.

In Baltimore, Johnson would join a team trying to defend ar Super Bowl title and anything less than another championship might be perceived as a failure.

But the Bucs believe he would be a tremendous upgrade from King, who struggled in his first full season as a starter and failed to produce a touchdown in a 21-3 wild-card loss to the Eagles.

"Obviously, having (Dungy) there is a big plus," Williams said.

Leaf had hoped to clear waivers so he could become a free agent. But the Bucs ruined those plans when they were the only team to put a claim on him. He is expected to arrive in Tampa Bay on Wednesday or Thursday.

"I thought we were about to go into free agency and in some senses that was going to be our preference because of the ability to pick a place with the right system, coaching and personnel," agent Leigh Steinberg said. "But if we were going to be claimed, this is at least a pleasant surprise. From the standpoint of coaching and the organization and competitiveness, Tampa could be a gem."

The Chargers thought they struck it rich with Leaf when they took him right behind the Colts' Peyton Manning.

Instead, Leaf made more headlines off the field for his bullish behavior and was plagued by injuries and ineffectiveness. He left the Chargers with a 4-14 record as a starter, having thrown 33 interceptions and 13 touchdown passes. 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.

"During my career I've never seen a player that had so much talent do so little with it," said former Chargers general manager Bobby Beathard, who retired last spring.

Although he had not contacted his client about the move late Friday, Steinberg is hoping to turn over a new Leaf to the Bucs.

"Ryan really is looking for a fresh start," Steinberg said. "And his upside is that if he fulfills his potential, someone may have a franchise quarterback at the highest level."

His downside is well chronicled, including well-publicized screaming fits with a reporter, an altercation with a fan at practice while he was injured and a four-week suspension without pay for shouting obscenities at Beathard.

After being benched midway through his rookie season, Leaf missed all of '99 with a shoulder injury.

He won back the starting job last summer but was benched after throwing five interceptionsand one TD in the first two games. Although he started the final six games, he never regained the respect of teammates.

"I think obviously, the four years have been frustrating but I think they've been learning years," Steinberg said. "I think this last year showed some marked improvement in maturation, which was obscured by the overall collapse of the San Diego team. He had high hopes, he was in wonderful shape, he'd worked hard and had some wonderful halves of football. But the losing nature of the season made it extremely difficult."

SIMEON RICE TO VISIT: Cardinals defensive end Simeon Rice will visit the Bucs on Monday.

It is a possible sign that the Bucs might be disenchanted with defensive end Chidi Ahanotu, who had 3.5 sacks last season.

Rice, 27, led the Cardinals with 7.5 sacks last season. The 6-foot-5, 260-pound Rice was a first round pick out of Illinois by the Cardinals in '96.

- Information from other news sources was used in this report.

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