Friday, September 1
Surprise! Leaf, Fiedler get new starts

As the tears and anguish and joy and cheers cleared from the players around the NFL during final cutdown days, two AFC quarterbacks emerged as surprise starters for their respective teams.

From out of football to replacing NFL legend and certain Hall of Fame first-ballot entrant Dan Marino, Jay Fiedler is embarking on a brave new world as the Dolphins' starter.

Ryan Leaf
Ryan Leaf is once again the Chargers' future at quarterback.

And, across the country, from bad, spoiled crybaby first-round pick who would seemingly never live up to his potential to franchise QB, Ryan Leaf has emerged in San Diego as the Chargers' starter. The Chargers' future is in Leaf's hands for as long as he can handle it.

Fiedler's story is much more warming than that of Leaf, who should've been enjoying his third training camp as the Chargers' starter and already well along in his NFL career (see the Colts' Peyton Manning for the textbook plan).

Fiedler, who signed a three-year, $3.8 million contract and has a mere one career NFL start, is a small-school kid with big-time plans, and he's unafraid of following Marino in Miami.

After he graduated from Dartmouth and spent a couple of years carrying clipboards for the Eagles, Fiedler was out of the NFL in 1996 and '97, actually helping to coach Hofstra University in 1997. After hooking on with the Vikings and then the Jaguars as a backup, teams began to take more notice in Fiedler, whom the Dolphins signed to compete with Damon Huard for the starting job.

Dating back to workouts since March, Fiedler has graded out better than Huard and, most importantly, he's shown more ability to get the Dolphins into the end zone than Huard. Now, as the Dolphins host the Seattle Seahawks Sunday in the season opener, this is Fiedler's team, something he hasn't been able to say since he was in college.

"It's hard to tell right now what I'll be feeling Sunday," Fiedler told Wednesday night. "I'll be excited; I know that. But knowing my personality, I'm pretty laid back, so I think I'll be stoic but excited inside."

"A lifetime of work has gone into getting this opportunity," Fiedler added. "The coaches feel I'm the guy to lead this team and I'm going to go out and try to prove them right."

Asked about the shadow of Marino, Fiedler said: "It's the 2000 season and we're moving forward, going forward. I was never here in the locker room with (Marino), so that's not even in the equation."

As for Huard, Fiedler said his fellow QB was upset about being benched. "We both wanted that starting job and only one could have it," Fiedler said. "He's been very professional and made it easy for me."

Fiedler, though, hasn't made it easy on Huard, who clearly went into camp believing the job was his to lose after he went 5-1 as the starter last year when Marino was injured.

According to insiders in Miami, Fiedler has shown more moxie than Huard, who in three preseason games failed to get the Dolphins in the end zone and tended to throw to the running backs out of the backfield too often. But when Fiedler returned from Aug. 3 arthroscopic hip surgery and played in the final preseason game on Aug. 25 -- completing 10 of 14 passes and throwing three interceptions -- he had no idea who Dave Wannstedt would turn to.

"I've been in so many different situations in my career, being on the good side and bad side of decisions, that I didn't have any expectations," Fiedler said. "So I guess whatever decision came out I was going to be somewhat surprised. I'm glad it was a good surprise.

What I believe it came down to was the gut feeling of the coach. Maybe (Wannstedt) thought, 'I think this kid gives us our best chance.'
Jay Fiedler, Dolphins quarterback

"What I believe it came down to was the gut feeling of the coach. Maybe (Wannstedt) thought, 'I think this kid gives us our best chance.' "

The same logic is essentially what drove Chargers coach Mike Riley to choose Leaf, who'd been ostracized for his litany of on-the-field and off-the-field problems and lack of work ethic. Both were generally a result of his immaturity.

Riley apparently sees something in Leaf that tells him the youngster has changed, even though Leaf's career stats are alarming -- 111 completions in 245 attempts for two touchdowns and 15 interceptions with a 39.0 passer rating.

The inevitable comparisons will be made with Manning, the 1998 No. 1 pick who was drafted one spot ahead of Leaf. Manning already has 50 more career touchdown passes than Leaf.

Leaf, whose work ethic has improved, has proved to the Chargers' coaching staff that he's changed. This new rededication pushed Riley to start him over last year's incumbent, Jim Harbaugh. Leaf responded in the preseason by completing an impressive 40 of 63 passes for 447 yards and three touchdowns.

Leaf, who's in the middle of a $31.25 million contract, said "earning" the starting job "gives you credibility."

"The only credibility I had coming into my rookie year was that I was the second pick (in the draft)," he said. "After the name is called, it really doesn't mean anything."

Leaf's teammates, with whom he's had his share of clashes, have noticed a different demeanor in the former Washington State star.

"He's older now and he understands the big picture," Chargers safety Rodney Harrison said. "I think he's gotten to the point where he said enough is enough. He truly wants to change. It feels like he's really part of the team."

Graham's the man in Pittsburgh
Kent Graham
Feeling a part of the team is a difficult task for Kordell Stewart these days, as his once-promising career as a quarterback took yet another severe hit this week when career backup Kent Graham was named the starter in Pittsburgh ahead of "Slash."

Graham, who has found himself in the middle of a number of quarterback controversies with Boomer Esiason, Jake Plummer, Kerry Collins, Danny Kanell, Dave Brown, Greg Frey and Tony Rice for starting jobs in his career, finds himself with perhaps the best chance of his career with Stewart's stock having plummeted.

Foley's follies continue
Another example of how fleeting a quarterback's career can be came to light this week when Glenn Foley was waived by the Seattle Seahawks.

Glenn Foley
Only three years ago, Foley was given the reins as the Jets' starting quarterback by none other than Bill Parcells, who'd fallen out of favor with Neil O'Donnell.

Foley, after out-performing O'Donnell in practices, was finally given the starting job, which he was supposed to hold onto in '98 when the Jets signed then-backup Vinny Testaverde. Foley couldn't keep himself healthy in the preseason, concealed a painful rib injury from Parcells and then questioned his coach to fall out of favor with Parcells. Suddenly, Testaverde was starting and nearly led the Jets to the Super Bowl in '98.

Foley, who was in the second year of a $1.75 million contract, is now out of work, hoping to catch on with any team with an opening for a backup. His window as a starting quarterback opened and closed rapidly.

Mark Cannizzaro of the New York Post writes an AFC notebook for every Thursday.

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