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Leaf still working out kinks for Bucs

New quarterback has been inconsistent, but he and the team remain pleased with the decision for him to come to Tampa Bay.

[Times photo: Ken Helle]
The injuries to Shaun King, left, and starter Brad Johnson have meant increased repetitions for Ryan Leaf (16), but coach Tony Dungy remains intrigued by the skills of Joe Hamilton (1).

By RICK STROUD

© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 8, 2001


TAMPA -- He was the second overall pick in the NFL draft in 1998, but Ryan Leaf still is a long way from becoming even the second-best quarterback on the Bucs roster.

Six months after he was claimed off waivers from the Chargers, Leaf is more than a Hail Mary from passing Shaun King as Tampa Bay's backup to projected starter Brad Johnson.

Still unfamiliar with the Bucs offense and refining the fundamentals of his position, Leaf said he has been inconsistent in his first week and a half of training camp. He was intercepted twice in Saturday's scrimmage.

Barring injuries or ineffectiveness by King in the preseason, it's likely Leaf will start the season as the No. 3 quarterback.

Now for the good news.

If that scenario occurs, neither Leaf nor the Bucs would be terribly bothered by it.

"Shaun obviously has more of a grasp of what we're doing," coach Tony Dungy said. "Shaun has thrown to the receivers for two years and Ryan has thrown to them for three months. I think Shaun is just ahead of Ryan because of what he knows.

"Ryan has a very fine arm. He has a great understanding of football. He doesn't understand our offensive system as well, but that's what will come. I think Shaun should be ahead of Ryan and right now he is."

King has not practiced since straining a shoulder after a collision with defensive end Marcus Jones on Saturday.

He is expected to return today.

Johnson missed the first week of team drills with his lacerated left knee.

Except for problems adjusting to the heat the first day, Leaf has been available to benefit from the extra repetitions but hasn't distinguished himself as a real contender for the No. 2 job.

"It's a new offense for me and it's just a matter of me getting adjusted to it," Leaf said. "It's not like we're playing Dallas (in the season opener) Saturday, so I've got preseason games to kind of develop it.

"I wasn't happy. I've been having a good practice, then a bad practice, then a good practice. I haven't really maintained it. Other than that, I don't believe anybody has separated themselves from anybody else. Somebody has been out the whole time. It's good because I'm getting some more reps."

But Leaf admits King's familiarity with the Bucs offense has put him in a better position to challenge Johnson this year.

"I think Shaun is probably further ahead than anybody with the offense last year," Leaf said. "He's a bright kid and he's done well in this league. So I can learn some things from him, definitely. And as for Brad, he's seen it all. So I think it's just a great learning curve for me."

Not only has Leaf been unable to put King in his rearview mirror, but he is dangerously close to being supplanted at No. 3 by second-year quarterback Joe Hamilton.

The former Georgia Tech standout has been one of the Bucs' most consistent performers in camp and rarely makes a bad read or wayward pass.

"He knows our offense better, but he's shown what he's shown throughout his whole career," Dungy said of Hamilton. "He understands how to do things, how to win, making the big play at the right time. Joe's probably one of the most consistent guys we have, throwing to the right guy and being on top on all the little details. He's a winner."

Hamilton admits it wasn't easy this offseason watching himself go from one of only two quarterbacks on the roster to No. 4 with the addition of Leaf and Johnson.

"I would say it changed my whole outlook for my plans this year," Hamilton said. "Prior to that, I thought I'd challenge Shaun and Eric Zeier for some playing time. I felt if I knew these moves were going to come, I might have tried to play in Europe. I haven't played ball in nearly two years.

"Sometimes it's hard, because you may only get two plays (in team drills) and you don't want to take a check-down with two plays. You want to try and make something happen and it gets tough. I have to be ready for my chance. It's not going to come to you twice. It's not going to come, and if you screw it up, it comes back again. If it comes at all."

No one has struggled with the quarterback paradox more than Dungy. A huge proponent of Hamilton's, he finds it hard to ignore the tremendous upside of keeping a player of Leaf's talents in the No. 3 spot.

But the Bucs have to determine if Leaf would accept that role without becoming a distraction in the meeting room.

"I would expect him to be comfortable (as the third quarterback)," Dungy said. "We think you get the best players you can get to make the best team."

For Leaf, that decision was made in March when he elected to come to the Bucs rather than accept the team's offer to grant him his release if he wanted to compete for a starting job elsewhere.

"When I first got here, we discussed I could probably be in Dallas right now starting," Leaf said. "But was that the best thing for me, for my career in the long run? And a chance to win championships. Why go back to a similar situation (as San Diego) and do the exact same thing and then maybe your career is over then in four years instead of 14 if you do something right here. I discussed it with my family. Next offseason, next preseason, I'm going to be a better quarterback and so on and so fourth.

"Sometimes in the NFL, people get blinded by that because they want instant satisfaction. Sometimes they bring in guys one year to help you win, and if it doesn't happen, you're out. So I think the way we structured the contract, if after next year, they should know where they want to go with me and either we move forward and I take control or we go our separate ways. It was the best thing for me, definitely, and it gave us great depth at quarterback."

So deep, in fact, Dungy has struggled whether to reward Hamilton's production instead of Leaf's potential.

"That's a hard question. That's a question I've asked myself quite a bit," Dungy said. "I guess we'll see in September. But hopefully (Joe) keeps moving the team and gives us that dilemma.

"(Hamilton's) probably in the Karl Williams mode, where if we just put him in, he'd probably win a Super Bowl for us but we'll be hesitant to put him in. All he does is do what you ask and do the right things and move the ball. You'd like to think that counts for something."

As for Leaf, he's not ready to simply accept being the inactive third quarterback on Sundays.

"It's going to be tough for me, don't get me wrong," Leaf said. "I want to compete. But whoever is giving us the best chance to win this year, I want that to be the case. I know that my turn will come. But when it does, I'm not going to let it go."

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