Healing the Skins

Washington took a big step toward rebuilding a once-proud franchise by drafting strong-armed quarterback Heath Shuler
May 01, 1994

Maybe, just maybe, things started to turn for the Washington Redskins late Sunday. First, their new coach, Norv Turner, got the quarterback of his dreams, Heath Shuler of Tennessee, with the third pick of the NFL draft. Then, early in Round 2, the Redskins hesitated before disclosing their second choice while listening to trade offers from three teams, the Philadelphia Eagles, the Houston Oilers and the Los Angeles Raiders. If none of those teams put enough on the table, the Redskins planned to select Temple offensive lineman Trè Johnson. If Washington dealt the pick, it would fall back and choose guard Larry Allen of Sonoma State.

The ante never got high enough. The Redskins selected Johnson. "You got our guy," a Raider official said to the Redskins.

A few minutes later a staffer for the Indianapolis Colts, who had the next pick, called the Washington draft room. "That was our guy," the Colt official said of Johnson.

It seems strange to say about one of the premier franchises in the league, but it has been awhile since the Skins have had a winning day, and they really needed one. When Day 1 of the draft was over, Turner, who had fretted all week that he might lose Shuler, sat in his office with general manager Charley Casserly and allowed himself a mile-wide grin. "We're a better football team this evening than we were this morning," Turner said.

Every team says that at the end of every draft day. Few teams needed to say it as much as the 1994 Redskins did. Washington finished last season with a 4-12 record under first-year coach Richie Petitbon; it was the team's worst showing in 30 years. To make matters worse, at the end of the season, according to Casserly, the Redskins had a $52 million payroll, nearly $18 million more than the salary cap that takes effect this season. An ugly combination: a bad team with a bloated payroll.

In the last four months the Redskins have fired Petitbon and a crop of longtime assistants. They have also divorced 13 players, including the leading receiver in league history and the MVP of Super Bowl XXVI, and in the process have cut their payroll by $21 million. Turner, who had run the Dallas Cowboy offense for three years, was hired in February, and he will have three new quarterbacks to choose from: free agents John Friesz and Pat O'Hara and, now, Shuler.

On the weekend after Turner signed a five-year contract to coach the Redskins, he took home videotapes of Shuler and Fresno State's Trent Dilfer, the top two quarterbacks available in the draft. The Washington video staff had assembled footage of every one of Shuler's 285 throws and Dilfer's 337 in 1993 from end zone and sideline cameras. The body of work convinced Turner that the 6'2", 221-pound Shuler, a gritty kid with a superb arm and quick feet, was the guy for the Redskins.

Somewhere in the middle of the six Shuler tapes, Turner saw the play he needed to see. On Tennessee's first drive at Alabama, Shuler dropped into a shotgun formation at the Crimson Tide 25-yard line and took the snap. Alabama blitzed. The Volunteers' line couldn't pick up every rusher. An Alabama player steamed in from Shuler's right, unblocked. There was going to be a collision.

"But Heath waited," Turner recalled. "He knew he was going to take a huge hit, but he waited until the last possible tick and lofted a throw high in the air toward his slot receiver, giving him time to run under it. It was a perfect touch pass. Touchdown."

"A lot of times," Shuler said on Sunday, remembering the play, "you know you're going to take a lick when you throw. It's part of being a quarterback. A lot of quarterbacks change their form or technique because of a rush, but I don't think you can do that. You have to throw the ball the same way you always would and not worry about the rush. Anyway, the punishment's not near as bad when you complete the pass for a touchdown, which we did on that play."

Don't be surprised if Shuler is Turner's starting quarterback when the season opens, with Friesz, a former San Diego Charger, backing him up. "It's a possibility," Turner said. "It's what we'd like to get done."

With the offense in Turner's capable hands, much of the rest of the task of rebuilding the Redskins has fallen to the 45-year-old Casserly. On his office wall is a framed photograph of George Allen, the former Washington coach who hired Casserly as an unpaid intern in 1977. Casserly lived his job, taking an $8-a-night room at the local Y. "Great having you with me," Allen wrote on the photo. "You have what it takes."

He had better. Life in the NFL under the new salary cap will test front-office executives in ways they could never have imagined even a year ago. Wealthy teams like the Redskins, the New York Giants and the San Francisco 49ers can no longer throw money at their problems and buy their way to the Super Bowl. Salaries and players are being cut, and teams will be forced to jell quickly with new players who are unfamiliar with the offense or defense or with one another. "I walk into Redskin Park now," said guard Mark Schlereth last Saturday, "and everywhere are guys I've never seen before."

Schlereth, who played in the 1991 Pro Bowl, might not be going to Redskin Park much longer himself. To get far enough below the $34.6 million salary cap—which is the maximum amount allowed for everything from veteran salaries to rookie salaries to $595,000 in prorated bonuses for veterans who have been let go—Washington still has to jettison the salaries of at least two veterans from among Schlereth, safety Brad Edwards, linebacker Kurt Gouveia and guard Raleigh McKenzie to leave room to sign draftees and replace injured veterans.

The Redskins, as we know them, aren't the Redskins anymore. And their fans, as fervent a group as exists in any NFL city, are apoplectic. The case of wide receiver Art Monk, who was waived on April 6 when he wouldn't take a $500,000 slash in pay, cut deep. The Redskins couldn't justify paying the 36-year-old Monk $1.1 million, even though he had caught 888 passes over 14 seasons for them. Logic supported the Redskins. The fans backed Monk, who at week's end was unsigned. Gayle Mansuy of Fairfax, Va., called the release of Monk "greedy and unconscionable" in a letter to The Washington Post. "Today is a day I never thought I'd see—today I peel the 'SKINS sticker off my bumper."

Washington restructured and renegotiated 24 veteran contracts to shave $5.9 million off its 1994 salary load. Approximately $15 million more was saved by waiving or relinquishing the rights to those 13 veterans, much of the nucleus of the great Redskin teams of the past decade. The $1.5 million annual salary of front-seven cornerstone Charles Mann, age 33 and the survivor of nine knee operations, was deemed too extravagant. Joe Jacoby and Jeff Bostic, with 27 combined seasons as Hogs, also had to go. And quarterback Mark Rypien, coming off two subpar seasons after piloting the Skins to a 37-24 win over the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXVI—and knowing that he would have his successor breathing down his neck all year—chose not to stay when Casserly asked him to take a cut from $3 million to $1 million. He, too, remained unsigned.

Complicating reconstruction matters was the fact that despite employing four scouts to appraise NFL talent, Washington had seen its 1993 crop of free agents bomb. So the Redskins cut three of those free agents in the off-season: Carl Banks, the outside linebacker who couldn't make the adjustment from a 3-4 alignment to a 4-3; defensive end Al Noga, who had a grand total of four sacks last year; and wideout Tim McGee, a 39-catch disappointment who was deactivated for Washington's final two games even though he was healthy.

Casserly and owner Jack Kent Cooke have had only a few months to do what it has taken Detroit years to do with the automobile industry: downsize while improving the product to keep pace with the competition. "No one has a greater respect for what this organization and those players accomplished than I do," says Turner. "But the reality of pro sports is that no one player or coach is bigger than the place. And the reality of this situation is that this team went 4-12 last year. When you looked at that and the climate of the game today, you knew we had to change things."

Casserly had Washington's four pro scouts make depth charts of free agents at each position. The Redskins rated Arizona Cardinal outside linebacker Ken Harvey as their No. 1 target at any position—although he had only 47.5 sacks in his 90 NFL games—and signed him right out of the free-agent chute in March for $11 million over four years. Defensive coordinator Ron Lynn believes that Harvey can be more productive as an every-down player in Washington than he was playing two thirds of the time in Phoenix. Washington also signed its top free-agent choice at tight end, former Raider Ethan Horton, and, in the interior offensive line, former Cowboy John Gesek. A serviceable wideout, Henry Ellard, a veteran of 11 seasons with the Los Angeles Rams, came aboard. All these acquisitions, however, are long in the tooth, averaging more than 30 years of age and eight NFL seasons.

The salary cap prevented the Redskins from addressing all their needs. They still have gaping holes at fullback, in the secondary and along the defensive line. After signing Harvey, Washington had to give up its pursuit of expensive defensive ends Clyde Simmons and William Fuller, both of whom were in the $2.8 million-per-year range. The Skins set their sights lower, on free agent Jon Hand, who had spent eight years in Indianapolis. Still too pricey. Hand re-signed with the Colts for $1.7 million a year.

Now their sights went lower still, to the $700,000-a-year range. That doesn't buy much in the defensive-end market. It bought former Ram Tony Woods, who in seven NFL seasons has averaged one sack every six games. In the past the Redskins had always been able to purchase quality depth on defense. They won their last Super Bowl 27 months ago in large part because Cooke could afford to do things like spend $533,000 a year for broken-down defensive lineman Jumpy Geathers, who gave the team 20 solid plays a game. Those days are gone.

A year ago Casserly hired former New England Patriot general manager Joe Mendes to be Washington's full-time expert on the salary cap and a part-time scout. Casserly had been advised by counterparts in the NBA—particularly Washington Bullet general manager John Nash—that a full-time capologist was essential. In Mendes the Redskins have a 17-year NFL scouting veteran and a numbers cruncher who gives Casserly daily updates on where the team stands in relation to the cap.

The players seem bitter about the cap, although the ones who have been released by Washington have not, for the most part, ripped the organization. Some say that the new reality is ruining what was once a superb team. "The Redskins aren't some emblem on the side of a helmet," Schlereth says. "The Redskins are Joe Jacoby, Jeff Bostic, Art Monk, Charles Mann, Mark Rypien. I worry about the quality of the game. How's an offense going to develop any cohesion when half the starters change every year?"

Schlereth and many other Redskins blame the NFL Players Association for the Skins' plight. "I don't see how we can fight for free agency for seven years and then in essence give it away by agreeing to the cap," says Schlereth. "I put the blame for our problems directly on the NFLPA."

So with all the cuts, what do the Skins have left? An energetic young coach in Turner, who until arriving in Washington had never been a head coach at any level. A promising quarterback in Shuler. A promising running back in Reggie Brooks, who gained 1,063 yards last season as a rookie. A left tackle, Jim Lachey, who missed all of last year after major surgery on his left knee. Questionable receivers in Ellard and the disappointing Desmond Howard. A defense full of holes, especially on the line.

Cooke has already predicted a winning season in 1994 and a return to the playoffs in '95, but those are lofty goals for a team that's about four players north of an expansion team right now. Says Lachey, "It's pretty unsettling sitting in the locker room at the beginning of April and saying you're shooting for the playoffs when you have no idea who your quarterback's going to be."

Fair enough, but if Turner's judgment about Shuler is on the money, come September that question, at least, may be answered. Shuler is bright and eager—though only time will tell if he's thick-skinned enough and confident enough to lead the Redskins into the next century. For a while on Sunday, he almost wasn't accessible enough. When the time came for Washington to make its first pick, there was a curious pause of a few minutes. Turner wanted to tell Shuler of the Redskins' choice before it was announced, so he dialed Shuler's number in Bryson City, N.C., a hamlet of 1,200 people in the western part of the state. The Shuler family was hosting a party for 500, with pig-on-a-spit, bear and venison the featured entrèes. No one answered the phone at the Shuler house. Turner dialed another number there and got an answering machine. He dialed the first number again, and a man, with a great din in the background, answered.

"Is Heath there?" Turner said into the phone.

"Who's this?" the man said.

"Norv Turner."

"Who?" the man said.

"Norv Turner, the coach of the Redskins!"

"Oh. Heath!"

Shuler grabbed the phone. "Are you trying to avoid us?" Turner said, smiling.

"No, sir!" Shuler replied.

"Are you ready to be a Redskin?"

"Yes, sir!"

"We've got a lot of work ahead of us," said Turner.

Few teams these days have more.

FOUR PHOTOSPATRICK MURPHY-RACEYIn March, Shuler went through his paces in Knoxville, impressing the scouts and coaches on hand, including Turner (bottom far left, in striped shirt), with his vertical leap, his 40 time and his arm strength. PHOTOAL TIELEMANSCasserly (left) and Turner were pleased with what they saw on videotape of Shuler, who led Tennessee to a 9-2-1 mark in '93. PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYER[See caption above.] PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYERTurner (left) and Casserly relayed instructions from the Washington war room to staffers in New York, who made the Shuler pick official. TWO PHOTOSMANNY MILLAN[See caption above.] TWO PHOTOSPATRICK MURPHY-RACEYAlong with his family and girlfriend, Nikol Davis, the Redskins' top pick celebrated at the Shuler shindig.