- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 6, 2012

Heath Shuler knew what he had to say. It was the fall of 1994, and Washington Redskins coach Norv Turner was giving the touted rookie quarterback the chance to make his NFL debut against the defending Super Bowl-champion Dallas Cowboys.

“Of course, every competitive person says, ‘Hey I’m ready to go, let’s go, I’m ready. Put me in a game, coach, I’m ready to play,’ ” Shuler said.

He wasn’t ready to play. Not then and not really at any point during a four-year career that never lived up to the hype of his being the third overall draft pick. Robert Griffin III is saddled with that kind of attention now.

Shuler, who was considered the next star for a franchise that won three titles with three different quarterbacks turned out to be a bust: 22 starts, 15 touchdowns and plenty of wondering how it all went wrong.

“I can’t blame it on any individual,” said Shuler, who’s retiring as a Democratic congressman from North Carolina after three terms. “I just blame it on myself.”

There’s plenty of blame to go around.

Reaching for a star

Just three seasons removed from their last Super Bowl victory, the Redskins were intent on finding a young quarterback to pair with new coach Norv Turner. Starring at Tennessee, Shuler finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting and was considered the top pro prospect.

Then-Redskins general manager Charley Casserly conceded Shuler was more of a prospect than a finished product, a characterization the quarterback agreed with. But the Redskins made him the No. 3 pick in the 1994 draft.

“We forced taking a young quarterback high in the draft,” Casserly said. “He was a reach at 3. He was more of a later first-round pick as a lot of these guys are being taken now. But if you make the decision, which we did, to take a quarterback, then you’re going to have to take him regardless of where you’re picking.”

Problem is, as the third pick of a team not far removed from glory years, Shuler had the expectations lofted onto his 6-foot-2, 216-pound frame. Meanwhile, there wasn’t much expected out of seventh-rounder Gus Frerotte.

Between the draft and training camp, Shuler felt like something of a celebrity around Washington but tried to stay focused.

“Managing expectations is virtually impossible,” said then-quarterbacks coach Cam Cameron, now the Baltimore Ravens’ offensive coordinator. “And I think it goes with the territory. The quarterbacks know it and they relish it.”

‘Just another guy’

Shuler said the pressure didn’t get to him until games started, but fans did wonder why he wasn’t in training camp on time.

A new collective bargaining agreement made the terms more complicated. Shuler made it clear that even as he asked Casserly what needed to be done to get into camp, he didn’t blame the Redskins‘ front office for the timing. Second-round pick Tre Johnson signed late, too, and Casserly explained the league needed extra time to go over Shuler’s deal.

Shuler missed two weeks of training camp before signing an eight-year, $19.25 million contract that was the richest in franchise history and biggest rookie deal in NFL history.

Turner at the time said the holdout was a “short-term setback in what’s going to be a long-term relationship.” But by the time Shuler reported to camp, Frerotte had impressed and it took time to catch up.

“Basically what happens is, the coaches looked at me and said, ‘We don’t have time to play catch-up. We’re just going to have to go,’” Shuler said. “And it was a totally different offense from what I had been accustomed to, and I think that, to me, was the most difficult thing.”

Perhaps the most difficult thing was gaining respect within the locker room. Return specialist Brian Mitchell, who was in his fifth season with the Redskins when Shuler arrived, said it didn’t take long for he and his teammates to figure out this 22-year-old prospect wasn’t going to be the guy.

“After we started practicing we felt that he was just another guy,” Mitchell said. “We didn’t see him as that guy that deserves all that hype.”

Bring on the pressure

The 1994 Redskins didn’t win. Not under their September starter, veteran John Friesz, who went 1-3. Not under Frerotte (1-3) and certainly not under Shuler (1-7).

But Shuler got his chance before Frerotte, facing the Cowboys on Oct. 2 in his pro debut. Casserly called starting an unproven, unpolished rookie against Jimmy Johnson’s juggernaut “absolutely the worst situation” Shuler could be in.

“I felt that they threw him to the wolves too quick,” Mitchell said. “But that’s the NFL: They draft somebody high, they have to prove that they did the right thing and they’ll do everything they can to make sure that we believe what they did is right.”

The 34-7 loss portended more disappointment. Shuler didn’t win his first game with the Redskins until Christmas Eve.

“If you’re playing bad, then obviously the pressure completely increases,” said Shuler, who said the seven losses were more than he had in high school and college combined. “I think that’s kind of obviously what I felt going into it that the pressure actually built up when you started losing games.”

Shuler said he would have rather spent time being mentored by someone such as Rich Gannon, but that didn’t happen. He got into 11 games and showed little promise: 10 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and a 45.3 completion percentage.

“We just weren’t successful as a team,” Shuler said. “I wasn’t successful as a quarterback.”

Where it went wrong

The Shuler experiment may have been doomed from the start.

For one, Turner’s offense was built more for a more traditional quarterback in the sense that he liked to drop back and throw the ball. Shuler was not. The former high school high-jumper knew he wasn’t a pocket passer like Troy Aikman.

“You get in the game and they say, ‘All those things that you did in college, forget that. We may have drafted you because of your abilities in college but kind of forget that now,’ ” Shuler said.

It wasn’t about learning the drop-back offense but rather what Shuler said was a process of “learning not to be an athletic quarterback.” Turner’s system didn’t fit.

“If you draft a guy at that high of a pick and he doesn’t fit your system, then you’re the fool, not him,” Mitchell said.

Shuler also lamented that Turner was a first-time head coach and that Cameron was a first-time quarterbacks coach and the ensuing lack of direction provided for him and Frerotte.

While Frerotte developed into a Pro Bowl quarterback by 1996, Shuler was dogged by injuries, notably a second-degree shoulder separation and a sprained ankle. After that season, the Redskins had to choose which quarterback to pay as their starter. They went with Frerotte.

“Part of what hurt Shuler was the injuries. And Frerotte playing well,” Casserly said. “So you’re not going to bench the guy who’s playing well. And the other guy because of the injuries has not really got a fair opportunity.”

Dealt to the New Orleans Saints for a third- and a fifth-round pick, Shuler dislocated toes on his left foot and never recovered. Even though it ended quickly, Shuler called his time with the Redskins “the single greatest learning experience” of his life.

Casserly said injuries shouldn’t be glossed over in explaining why Shuler’s football career lasted less time than his tenure as a congressman, which will end in January. But even before that, it wasn’t on the right track.

“I think there would be some things that I would do differently, but I’d rather not talk about them,” Casserly said.

Now 40 with almost two decades of hindsight, Shuler knows there are aspects of football he could have done better, even if he knew he worked as hard as possible.

“I wasn’t the partier, I spent every waking minute on the offense, I worked out, I didn’t miss workouts, I did everything I was ever asked to do,” he said. “Sometimes I felt like I spent too much time because I wanted it so bad that I didn’t take a break from football.”

The Redskins badly wanted Shuler to be the team’s next franchise quarterback, or at least join Joe Theismann, Doug Williams and Mark Rypien in the exclusive club of Super Bowl winners. Instead, the clock ran out on Shuler before he had the chance to prove his worth.

“He was a guy who was going to need some time to develop, and as things happened, he didn’t get the time to develop,” Casserly said. “So I don’t think we ever knew what he was going to be.”

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