INDIANAPOLIS -- The learning curve of rookie quarterbacks was painfully evident yesterday when the Indianapolis Colts subdued the San Diego Chargers, 17-12, in a game that never approached its promise.
Ryan Leaf, the Chargers' 22-year-old phenom, didn't throw any temper tantrums, but he did throw another interception and it turned out to be huge.
This matchup of the top two picks of the 1998 draft was a game better suited to defensive tackles and linebackers than rookie quarterbacks.
And even if it generated national attention, Indianapolis wasn't exactly agog. There were more than 8,500 unsold seats at the RCA Dome, although those who showed up enjoyed making life miserable for the beleaguered Leaf.
Learning on the job, the two quarterbacks exchanged notes only briefly at midfield after the game.
"I wished him good luck," Leaf said. "I'm sure he's ecstatic after his first win. I was. It's good to have that off your shoulders."
Manning,in fact, was grateful to have a four-game losing streak off his back, but there was no ecstasy in his post-game demeanor.
"We're still realistic," he said. "We are 1-4."
When Manning takes stock of his first NFL win, there will be some ragged edges. He threw his 12th interception of the season -- surpassing the 11 he threw at Tennessee a year ago -- and converted only two of 13 third-down plays. His 12-for-23 performance worth 137 yards and one touchdown was efficient, if nothing else.
Four scoring drives covered a grand total of 55 yards, including a pair of 3-yard field-goal drives in the fourth quarter.
"It wasn't easy; it wasn't pretty," said Colts coach Jim Mora. "I don't know if we are going to have any easy ones this year."
The conservative Colts used all their creativity to claim an 8-0 lead in the first quarter. After the first of three San Diego turnovers -- a Leaf interception -- Manning threw a 19-yard touchdown pass to running back Marshall Faulk.
Faulk was incredibly open on a fake reverse against the blitz.
"You have the idea it might be wide-open," Manning said. "I turned my back and I could feel the pressure, I could feel the linebackers blitz."
Then came the coup de grace. While kicker Mike Vanderjagt lined up for a conventional kick, the rest of the Colts lined up to the left. Tight end Ken Dilger went in motion, took the snap and barreled into the end zone for a two-point play.
"It's something we've been working on since training camp," Mora said. "We line all our guys up over there and if they adjust, we come back and kick the extra point."
The Colts never surrendered the lead, adding three field goals from Vanderjagt. Their strategy on defense was to stop running back Natrone Means (barely; he ran for 130 yards) and make Leaf beat them.
Leaf, completing 12 of 23 for 160 yards, couldn't do it. His only touchdown pass, a 45-yard strike to Bryan Still, was wiped out by an illegal-procedure penalty on tackle Vaughn Parker.
"They called the right tackle for lining up too deep," Chargers coach Kevin Gilbride said of the costly infraction.
Leaf also missed a chance for a touchdown when he overthrew wide-open Freddie Jones in the end zone in the second quarter.
Gilbride is suddenly 2-3 after a 2-0 start, trying to find a solution for a raft of problems. There were three turnovers that led to 14 Indianapolis points. There was a holding penalty on a kick return that took the ball back from the Indianapolis 12 to the San Diego 20. There were knee injuries that knocked out his left guard (Aaron Taylor) and left tackle (John Jackson).
And still, the Chargers had a chance to tie in the final two minutes. A 56-yard pass from Leaf to Charlie Jones set up a 1-yard touchdown plunge by Means to cut the deficit to 14-12.
On a two-point conversion try, Leaf's fade pass fell incomplete when Webster Slaughter got tangled up with defender Monty Montgomery.
"We had the corner open for Web, but he couldn't get off the jam," Leaf said. "It looked like he was being held, but you can't put it in the officials' hands. We've got to go out and win it."
With three timeouts left, the Chargers tried an onside kick, failed and Indianapolis countered with a field goal. San Diego's last gasp was two incompletions, a sack and a 16-yard pass.
"I'm going to be fine," Leaf said. "I know I'm going to struggle."
Manning vs. Leaf
A look at how rookie quarterbacks Peyton Manning of the Colts and Ryan Leaf of the Chargers fared during Indianapolis' 17-12 victory:
Stat........... ....Manning.... ......Leaf
Completions..... ...12........ .......12
Attempts....... ....23........ .......23
Completion pct....0.522..... .......0.522
Yards...... .......137....... .......160
Touchdowns.... ......1....... .........0
Interceptions.. .....1....... .........1
Times sacked... .....0....... .........4
Pub Date: 10/05/98