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Leaf's sound of silence is music to Bucs ears

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By GARY SHELTON

© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 25, 2001


This just in: In a shocking turn of events, Bucs quarterback Ryan Leaf was not arrested for running naked with the flamingos at Busch Gardens on Tuesday.

Leaf was not chased from kiosk to Kumba by security guards, and he was not cornered as he surfed down the log flume. Upon being caught, Leaf did not put on a pith helmet and presume himself to be Dr. Livingston. When asked about his actions, Leaf did not break into the chorus of Jumpin' Jack Flash.

Yep, this is going to disappoint them in San Diego, but another day has passed, and still, Leaf manages to remain underneath the radar.

He has not turned off, ticked off or tripped up his teammates.

He has not rocked the boat, let alone steered it toward the rocks.

He has not battled bartenders, barbers or bail bondsmen.

He has not partied with Patrick Ewing, and he was not responsible for the number of clubs in Ian Woosnam's bag.

He has not let the dogs out.

He has not shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.

He has not even sworn at reporters, although if he wishes to, I have a couple of names I can suggest.

For 125 days, it has been like this. Reliable Ryan. Dependable Ryan. Happy, harmonious, humble Ryan.

Yes, Leaf is still a Buc, in that third-string, panning-for-gold sort of way, and the Bucs faces are free of being blown up in. No one thinks about him. No one hears about him. For all that matters, Leaf has become invisible.

To those caught in Leaf's disappointing wake, that is simply the darndest news imaginable. When the Bucs signed Leaf in March, the common refrain was they had signed on for trouble and it was only a matter of time before it showed.

Once a week, sometimes more, Bucs public-relations director Reggie Roberts says he gets a call from a reporter, or a radio announcer, from the West Coast who is wondering if Ryan has "Leafed" yet.

Is he fat? Is he fuming? Is he frustrating? Did he stick Warren Sapp with the lunch tab? Has he argued with Keyshawn Johnson? Did he put jellyfish in the whirlpool? Has Tony Dungy walked into the locker room yet and asked "Fellas, could you please teach me how to swear, 'cause I've got some things to say to this guy?"

No, Roberts will say. Things are fine.

Okay, the caller will say.

Talk to you next week.

"I'm sure people in San Diego expected the same kind of headlines there has been for the last few years," Leaf said. "But it's a different situation. When a team is expected to win, no one writes just about one guy. There are so many stars on the Bucs, I get lost in the shuffle.

"I'm sure there are people (in San Diego) who don't want me to succeed. If I pan out in Tampa Bay, they'll wonder what it could have been here. But my leaving San Diego was the best thing for everyone. If people are looking for headlines, I'm not going to give it to them. I'm too much at peace. I'm night-and-day happier."

Oh, for the record, Leaf did miss a workout this season. One. A friend of his had a child, and Leaf was the godfather. (No, he did not have Barzini, Tattaglia and the other heads of the crime families shot. That was the other godfather.)

Except for that, Leaf has been squeaky clean. His quarterback coach, Jim Caldwell, calls him "smart, cordial, a hard worker." His offensive coordinator, Clyde Christensen, calls him "outstanding, delightful, a gentleman."

Oh, that's the kind of stuff that's gonna kill them in San Diego.

"Did Ryan play in San Diego?" Christensen said. "Gee. I wasn't aware of that."

You know what it's like. For years, as the Bucs were throwing away Doug Williams and Steve Young and Vinny Testaverde and Chris Chandler and Trent Dilfer, you felt just like fans in San Diego. As sick as you might have been of their shortcomings here, there is nothing like that sneaking suspicion they might just succeed somewhere else. It's the eternal question: Do you really want your ex-spouse to find happiness?

So there are fans in San Diego who would love to see Leaf melt down, just so they could say they told you so, just so someone else would comprehend the misery they have felt. The more blame they attach to Leaf, the less they can assign to their team.

The truth is, Leaf never had a chance in San Diego. He had three coaches, no quality running backs, no quality receivers. He will admit he lacked maturity, which didn't help. And so the rest of the Chargers organization took absolute glee in dumping the blame on him.

Sure, Leaf made his mistakes. Chief among them was he was unable to pick up a bad franchise and carry it on his back. And so, once again, a bad team has asked a player to do too much and then proclaimed him to be too little.

Here, he says it's different. Linebacker Shelton Quarles and his wife just went out to visit the Leafs.

"In my three years with the Chargers," Leaf said. "I don't think a teammate spent more than five minutes with me."

Let's be honest. No one really knows what to expect from the guy here, and so they expect nothing. That's the beauty of the situation. Unlike the Chargers, the Bucs don't need Leaf to be great. No one around here has put tomorrow in his hands.

Leaf will start the season -- and, quite possibly, finish it -- as the team's third quarterback. Sometime during the next couple of years, when the tarnish is off his reputation, the Bucs hope he can be another quarterback who relishes a new start (Kerry Collins) or one who can bring a return in a trade (Trent Green).

In the meantime, Leaf marches on. And all those in San Diego can do is wait and hope. Today, perhaps he'll yell at a phone solicitor.

If you live in San Diego, keep a good thought.

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