QB Ryan Leaf took his first few tosses as a Buccaneer on Tuesday afternoon
What a difference a day makes.
Last Thursday night, Ryan Leaf tossed and turned, finding little comfort in his hotel bed as he contemplated an unsure NFL future.
On Friday night, that same bed offered him a full night's rest.
In between, Leaf had found the answers he needed as he talked alternately with Tony Dungy, Rich McKay, Clyde Christensen and Jim Caldwell. He had come to Tampa to meet the team that had claimed him off waivers on March 2, but was expecting it to be a quick round trip. Instead, he found a reason to stay and, on Monday, Leaf and the team made it possible for him to do so with a restructured contract.
It wasn't a free agent shopping trip for Leaf, who was technically under contract with the Bucs. However, it was assumed that he would not be retained unless his deal was reworked, so Leaf did in effect hold the decision in his own hands. That decision had been on hold since the waiver claim, and in the interim the Bucs had signed Pro Bowl QB Brad Johnson, who will obviously play a major role under center. After two weeks, Leaf couldn't wait any longer.
"I told my wife that I was just going to jump on a plane and get out here and try to get this thing going," he said. "If there was going to be a trade, I didn't want it to keep going until some time in June and then go to a new team and not know what's going on. I didn't want to set myself back. I kind of took the initiative and hopefully made a good impression. I wanted to see where we were going.
"I kind of had my mind made up that I probably wasn't going to be a Buc when I came out here, but that quickly changed with my meeting with the Glazers. Instantly. I was able to talk to people that I wanted some information from and who I trusted, and we thought this was the best thing for me. Everybody was real quiet about it. They let me make my decision, then afterwards they reiterated how glad they were that I did make this decision."
Leaf was speaking of the reaction of his family and friends, but the Bucs were also pleased with the decision. Rich McKay would have preferred to meet with Leaf almost immediately after he was claimed, but the Johnson signing, draft workouts, Competition Committee meetings and Leaf's own uncertainty about the situation had complicated matters. By the time Leaf pushed for this weekend's get-together, the team was unsure how he would respond to their sales pitch.
"He had a lot of things going on and was hearing a lot of different opinions concerning what was best for Ryan Leaf," said McKay. "This was an opportunity to bring him into town and show him what we're about and how we do business, and make our case for why we thought this was as good a situation as any.
"Was I confident he would see it that way? I don't know, probably not. Maybe 50-50. But I think as he met with the coaches, met with Coach (Dungy) – I think I got to him Friday night and spoke two hours with him – I think he understood that we were a pretty good situation. He was pretty quick to say, 'You know what, let's do this.'"
Apparently, the Bucs have become very persuasive. Neither Johnson nor Leaf would have seemed a likely Tampa Bay roster candidate when free agency began, but both are in Tampa, and happily so, before the end of March. It could be the beginning of a stunning reversal for the Buccaneers who, as a franchise, are better known for losing quarterbacks with bright futures than attracting them. Ironically, it was one of those losses that helped persuade Leaf to stay.
"I'm the type of person who is kind of impatient and wants that instant playing time," said Leaf in a mildly surprising admission. "But what was the best thing for me in the long run? Some place to rejuvenate my career … that's definitely the case here. They used a very good (example): Steve Young went to San Francisco and won a Super Bowl on the bench, but then when he got his opportunity he won one as a starter. This team has that capability and I don't see it going down any time soon. They've got the defense and they've got the power players on offense that can just make a quarterback look really, really good."
That perhaps, was the number one point the Bucs needed to sell Leaf on during his 'recruiting' visit. His initial excitement over coming to Tampa had been dampened by the Johnson signing, a roller coaster of emotions that must have reminded Leaf of his three seasons in San Diego. Instead, the Bucs showed Leaf the stability of the environment and the possibilities it offered a talented, young player.
"Tampa Bay certainly was a very viable option in my mind but I never thought it would become a reality," said Leaf. "When I found out (about the waiver claim) on my honeymoon, I was very excited. It diminished maybe a little when Brad was signed, but if you really take a hard look at it and see what's best for me, this is definitely the best possible place you could be. You can see the winning, and I can see the family (environment) here in Tampa Bay. It's very, very nice to see."
Suddenly, Leaf had an optimistic feeling about his career that he hadn't experienced since his rookie season under Chargers Head Coach June Jones. The Bucs like his skills and have given him a clean slate on which to display them, without all of the pressures that accompanied his original NFL debut as a 'franchise savior.'
"We did not claim Ryan Leaf to trade him," said McKay. "I think it was assumed that we did. This was an opportunity to get a guy who has a lot of potential and who we don't have expectations for right away. We've got Shaun (King, 15-9 as an NFL starter) and we've got Brad, so let's kind of let Ryan grow at his own pace. The value of the position, his age and his upside … it was just a situation that we weren't going to pass up."
It wouldn't work, of course, if Leaf couldn't find a way to fit into that glut of starting-caliber hurlers, but he believes he can. "The role for me is whatever I can do to contribute," he said. "That's the most important part, that I get out and get back into it. They've got somebody like Brad that I can really develop behind. I think that he's a guy that has proven himself in this league and is somebody that I can learn a lot from. I'm going to prepare like I am the number-one guy, and whatever my role may be, I can contribute to a team that has the possibility to go to the Super Bowl year in and year out.
"If there are ways that I'm beat out at the quarterback position, there's going to be things I can learn from those guys. Hopefully, I'll learn from them and the next time there's a competitive (situation), I can be rewarded for that. But I'm going to have to be patient, that's definitely true. That's never been a strong suit for me, but I think that when you're winning and have a chance to play in the playoffs and go to the Super Bowl, that kind of takes the edge off a little bit more. When you're sitting on the bench and you're losing, you feel like you could be doing something."
Clearly, Leaf has a realistic view of the situation, but he also retains the fire to play and the belief that Dungy will play his cards fairly. Leaf stated flat out that he could handle being third or second string, as long as there is no glass ceiling. Had the Bucs not convinced him of that, he would have chosen to move on.
"I don't think you can go in as a coach and say this guy is a starter at this position, anywhere, whether it's defensive tackle or left corner or quarterback," said Dungy. "Obviously, the guys that were here before have an idea of the system and you expect certain guys to play, but that's why you have an offseason program, that's why you have training camp. You want to create competition at positions. It's not where you start. I guess September 4, we'll find out how it shakes out."
And, obviously, there were needs for answers on both sides. The Bucs are as aware of Leaf's troubles in San Diego as anyone else, and now have more at stake in him than most. Leaf admitted making mistakes in his first NFL home and took responsibility for his part in damaging the relationship beyond repair. As much as he would like to leave that situation completely in the past, it will remain an issue. His method for dealing with it will be to convince his new team that everything believed about him is wrong.
"Like I said, I probably handled some things wrong, but this is a new start," said Leaf. "This is a new opportunity for me, and it won't take long, with me being here day in and day out, for teammates and coaches to say, 'Well, maybe the media out there or perceptions were wrong.' But that's my job, to turn it around. No one else can do it for me."
Leaf's headed back to San Diego to pack up with his wife and move East. He's going to be fully involved in the Bucs' offseason preparations, as he was on Tuesday afternoon during a light throwing session with Ted White, Todd Yoder and Frank Murphy. He's in it for the long haul, even if that means several years down the road.
"Everything appealed to me," said Leaf of the Bucs' situation. "It was, can I take the chance of maybe sitting on the bench for two or three years? Can I deal with that? For the opportunity to win a ring and hold that trophy … well, I've won a championship at every level, and this is one I want as well."