You can study film of Washington wunderkind-in-waiting Heath
Shuler, and you can look at his lousy two-year NFL numbers, and
you can consider his three untimely injuries, and you can try to
figure out why a lowly seventh-round draft choice may beat him
out for his starting quarterback job this summer. Everyone from
political mastermind James Carville--a good friend of Redskins
coach Norv Turner--to a hotel bellman in Reston, Va. ("Shuler
gets too nervous back there," the guy says), has an opinion on
the faltering phenom.
This is an article from the Aug. 1, 1996 issue
But until you sit down and talk with him, you won't know the
full story of why Shuler hasn't yet become a star in his two
seasons in Washington. Looking him in the eyes tells you a lot:
Lines have formed beneath both, especially the right one. Those
lines weren't there on draft day 1994, when Shuler was anointed
the Redskins' savior. "Stress," the unfailingly upbeat
24-year-old says. "That's what they're from. I've got quite a
bit of stress in my life."
It is stunning to Shuler that, as badly as he wants it, success
isn't coming easy. This is a kid whose youth baseball teams in
Bryson City, N.C., won every game he played for four straight
years. An all-state quarterback and safety in high school, he
threw 42 touchdown passes as a senior. He was a model student at
Tennessee. While in college, Shuler was part of a group that
taught illiterate Knoxville children to read. He's heavily
involved in Christian charities, and his speaking engagements
are so popular that he has to schedule his appearances a year in
advance. Everything he has touched in life has turned to gold,
with one stressful exception: the oval leather ball signed by
Paul Tagliabue. As a rookie, Shuler was feeling so down that one
day he asked quarterbacks coach Cam Cameron, "Cam, am I ever
going to complete another pass?"
He has, but his 18-game Redskins numbers are pretty ugly: a 47.7
completion percentage (the league average last year was 58.2%),
133.5 passing yards per game, 13 touchdowns, 19 interceptions.
Which is why, much to Shuler's chagrin, Turner is opening
competition for the quarterback job in training camp to the
feisty Gus Frerotte, whose two-year quarterback rating is a full
10 points better than Shuler's and whose average salary is one
sixteenth of Shuler's. Put the Shuler-Frerotte contest to a vote
in Washington and the populace, judging by its verbal treatment
of both men over the last two seasons, would choose Gus over
Heath like Ronald Reagan over Walter Mondale--by a landslide.
There's one other little matter adding to the pressure on
Shuler. Two years ago Turner handpicked him to be Washington's
next Sonny Jurgensen--or even better--and in some ways Shuler's
early failure is Turner's failure. The Redskins have gone a
league-worst 9-23 over the last two seasons; although Turner has
three years left on his contract and owner Jack Kent Cooke loves
him like a son, you can be sure Turner will become an endangered
species if Shuler plays poorly and Washington wins no more than
five or six games this year.
Looking out at the practice field one day in April during
voluntary workouts, Turner seems unruffled about all of that.
"Look," he says, "Heath is just like all the rest of these guys.
He's just got to go out and play well. Forget all this other
stuff. Nothing matters until he gets on the field in game
competition. Then we'll see. I remember going into Dallas as
offensive coordinator in 1991 after Troy Aikman's second year. I
spent six months answering the question, 'Do you think Troy'll
be a real good player?' I'm not comparing Heath to Troy
necessarily, but go back and look at quarterbacks after two
years, and what you'll see are a lot of struggles."
From early March through late June, Shuler spent six hours a
day, four days a week at Redskin Park in Ashburn, Va., putting
in practice days only slightly shorter than his in-season
practice days. The Washington quarterbacks met each day for 75
minutes to diagram plays, answer what-would-you-do questions
from Turner and Cameron, watch tapes of their own plays and look
for weaknesses in other teams' defenses. They did off-field and
on-field aerobic conditioning; to show his sense of purpose,
Shuler won most of the 40-yard sprints with the backs and tight
ends. They acted out the morning's X's and O's on the practice
field for 75 minutes, throwing and huddling with the receivers.
They lifted weights. They watched practice tape with Cameron.
But fans couldn't care less if players live on the practice
field in March if they don't perform in November.
"What's been shocking," Shuler says, "is that this is the first
time in my life--at anything--that I haven't succeeded fairly
early. For the first time I'm being booed by the home fans. The
first time I heard it, I thought the fans were getting on some
cop for taking their beach ball away or something. When I heard
the boos were for me, I was shocked. Floored. Hurt. All my life
I've always made people happy. Now if I complete three in a row,
I'm thinking, They're just waiting for me to throw one
incompletion so they can boo me."
Shuler pauses for a minute. "You know," he says, "my ambition in
life is to make people happy. Until last year I honestly felt I
never had an enemy in the world. But now I just say, Let me go
out there and change people's minds about me."
One April morning on the Redskins' artificial-turf practice
field, Shuler throws a pass behind receiver Leslie Shepherd.
"Don't overthink!" Turner yells. "Just throw it!"
Easier said than done. In three years at Tennessee, Shuler had
to learn about 120 passing plays in which, for the most part,
receivers wouldn't change their routes no matter what the
defensive coverage. In two years with the Redskins, he has had
to learn about 400 passing plays, all with new terminology and
receiver adjustments. For the St. Louis game on Dec. 17, the
Redskins had 144 pass plays in the game plan, and Cameron
quizzed the quarterbacks on 1 through 144 the day before the game.
A typical play for Shuler at Tennessee was Twins Right, 65 HBO.
Twins Right meant two receivers lined up with specific pattern
assignments outside the right tackles; 65 was the blocking
assignment for the offensive linemen and tight end. And HBO
meant halfback option, which gave Shuler the option of throwing
the ball to his running back. "I come to Washington," Shuler
says, "and the terminology is completely different. I've come to
think that if you've mastered two offensive systems, it's like
you're fluent in two languages."
With Washington, a typical play is Shift, Twins Right Motion,
Scat Right, 525, F Post Swing. Shift means the play starts with
a formation disguise, so the defense has to hustle to match up
after the shift. Twins Right Motion is the final formation, with
a regular pro set except that two wideouts instead of one are
split right. Scat Right is the protection scheme for the linemen
and backs, telling each of them which defender to block, and 525
signifies, in order, what each receiver should do. The
progression of receivers in the Washington scheme is split end,
tight end and flanker. The 5 means the split end runs a 5 (or
comeback) route, which has him sprinting out 18 yards and
turning back toward the quarterback. Unless, of course, the
receiver and quarterback see a defensive coverage that means the
split end would be blanketed in the 15- to 18-yard range, in
which case he runs a 7 route, a post pattern.
Confused? We're not done yet.
The tight end runs a 2 route, a simple drag across the middle
underneath the coverage. And the flanker also runs a 5. F Post
means the fullback runs a post pattern. Swing means the halfback
runs a swing route out of the backfield.
Now picture this: After a tackle, the play clock starts at 35
seconds. The Washington quarterback looks to the sideline to get
the play and pops into the huddle with about 21 ticks left.
Having deciphered the hand signals from the sideline, he
converts them into words and numbers and calls out the play and
the snap count in the huddle--twice, so everyone gets it. With
about 13 seconds left, he begins to walk quickly to the line,
with players fanning out to their spots. He calls the signals,
and if all goes well he'll get the snap with four or five
seconds left on the play clock. He must go to the line knowing
which offensive lineman is going to block which defender. He
must know his progression of receivers and the primary and
secondary routes each will run, depending on the coverage. He
must know the audible, the adjusted play he will call at the
line of scrimmage if the defense shows him a scheme that makes
running the original play unwise. He must know who his safety
valve is in case the roof caves in and where this receiver is
going to be if all hell does break loose. So this is Shuler's
job: He must know what he is going to do, and what every
offensive player is going to do, on about 400 plays like Shift,
Twins Right Motion, Scat Right, 525, F Post Swing.
"With both Heath and Gus," Turner says, "you'd see sometimes
that they were trying so hard to stay with the offense and
thinking so much about what they should do that they didn't play
naturally. Until you've run the offense a lot, it's hard to be
Another problem with Shuler in years 1 and 2 was that he always
looked as if he had what coaches call happy feet. His feet
danced quickly on most drop-backs, so his throws often swirled
high or tailed low. He looked uncomfortable. Redskins fans came
to think that Frerotte, an unknown out of Tulsa drafted the same
year as Shuler, was more polished and mature, more of an
NFL-ready quarterback. Those thoughts were echoed by most
analysts, including probably the most respected onlooker of all,
Redskins legend and radio voice Jurgensen, who was backing
Frerotte unwaveringly by mid-1995. All of this led to Shuler's
being booed as lustily as any Redskin in recent years. And he
had already shown that he had no stomach for failure: In his
rookie year he threw five interceptions against Arizona in Game
7 and got so physically sick from the stress that for much of
the next two months he hardly slept and rarely felt like eating.
"I went from 230 pounds to 205 in 2 1/2 months," Shuler says.
"Forget eating. All I could think of was, How can I get better?"
He remembers getting showered with boos so intensely in a '95
game that his linemen, especially center John Gesek, felt
obliged to try to lift his spirits. "Block it out!" Gesek
yelled. "We're behind you 100 percent!"
More setbacks: He sprained his right ankle and missed three
weeks after winning the starting job in '94. He sprained his
right shoulder and missed eight weeks last year, then missed the
final game of the season with two broken fingers on his right
He says this off-season has been a cathartic one for him, in
which he has come to grips with the boos and the
expectations--and, most important, with the offense. "Mentally,"
Shuler says, "if you know what you can do, you can do it. That's
why I feel so confident right now--because I really feel totally
different from last year. I don't have to learn this anymore. I
know it. So when I take the snap, I'll feel totally comfortable."
Turner thinks the installation of a shotgun in the Redskins'
offense will help the 6'2", 221-pound Shuler feel even more
comfortable and begin to emerge as the do-it-all quarterback the
Redskins' front office believes he can be. "The shotgun is going
to help him relax and see the field," Turner says. "When he's
comfortable with the offense and playing like he can, Heath
should be one of the few guys in the league with great
athleticism, the accuracy to throw underneath and the ability to
be a good deep thrower. This spring I get the sense for the
first time that he's really comfortable."
Shuler is so driven to succeed that his intensity might actually
be contributing to his struggles. One weekend in April, after a
week in the Redskins' off-season program, he drove home to his
farm outside of Knoxville, Tenn. "I never turned the radio on,"
he says. "For 7 1/2 hours I made plays out of road signs. I
started on I-66 west, and I'd think of a play in our playbook
that has 66 in it and think of what formation I'd use to make a
good play out of it. I'd see mile marker 310 and I'd think, What
do I do on third-and-10 against Dallas from our 31? Mile
markers, exit signs, highway numbers--I used 'em all, and I
quizzed myself the whole way home." A 400-mile quiz? This guy
wants it. He just might want it too much.
Shuler has also been distracted at times by media pressure. "In
the paper it's always been 'Heath Shuler, $19.25 million
quarterback,' not 'Heath Shuler, Washington quarterback,'" he
said last year. He marvels at how receiver Michael Westbrook,
Washington's top pick in '95, escaped the fans' wrath despite
holding out longer than Shuler had in his rookie year and
signing for almost the same amount of bonus money ($6.5 million).
Shuler says that if he were the Redskins' G.M., he would have
traded Frerotte in the off-season "so we could have gotten
another high draft choice." When Turner was told of that
comment, he was chagrined. He also didn't appreciate the
quarterback's voicing his opinion that he should be named the
starter before training camp. Said Shuler: "If Coach Turner
doesn't say I'm the starter before camp, number 1, I'll be
shocked. Number 2, it'll be the wrong thing to do. You have to
let the starting group get its rhythm down, and we need time to
Turner's terse reply: "That ain't gonna happen."
Added the coach: "Competition is good. If I'm going to trust a
guy in a crucial spot in Dallas late in the year, then he should
be able to come through in a competition with another
quarterback in July."
Compared with Shuler, Frerotte has a better quarterback rating
(68.4), a better completion percentage (49.4), more touchdown
passes (18) and fewer interceptions (18). So if Turner goes by
the numbers--and he wants to pick a starter before the third
preseason game--Shuler will have to outplay Frerotte in the
month beginning July 15 to win the job.
Image is everything in D.C., which Turner sometimes jokes about
with Carville. "In his world you can take a result, massage it
and make it seem different," Turner says. "That's not how it is
in my world."
Image won't matter much in Shuler vs. Frerotte this summer. It
has come down to whether the third pick of '94 is a better
player than the 197th pick. Talk is cheap now. Let the
Since 1980, 18 first-round QBs (including supplemental picks)
have thrown at least 300 passes in their first two NFL seasons.
Dan Marino (left) is No. 1, while the '94 draftees rank 16th and
17th in passer rating over their first two years.
Quarterback, team, year Comp.-Att. Pct. TDs Int. Rating
Dan Marino, Dolphins, '83 535-860 62.2 68 23 104.5
Tony Eason, Patriots, '83 305-526 58.0 24 13 85.3
Bernie Kosar, Browns, '85 434-779 55.7 25 17 79.2
Jim McMahon, Bears, '82 295-505 58.4 21 20 78.5
Jeff George, Colts, '90 473-819 57.7 26 25 73.8
Dave Brown, Giants, '92 455-806 56.5 23 26 72.9
Cardinals, '89 237-437 54.2 16 17 72.8
Patriots, '93 614-1,120 54.8 40 42 70.3
Rick Mirer, Seahawks, '93 469-867 54.1 23 24 68.4
Jim Everett, Rams, '86 235-449 52.3 18 21 68.2
John Elway, Broncos, '83 337-639 52.7 25 29 67.9
Bengals, '92 237-441 53.7 9 11 66.6
Steve Walsh, Cowboys, '89 289-555 52.1 17 22 64.6
Troy Aikman, Cowboys, '89 381-692 55.1 20 36 62.0
Chris Miller, Falcons,'87 223-443 50.3 12 21 58.6
Redskins, '94 186-390 47.7 13 19 58.3
Buccaneers, '94 262-497 52.7 5 24 56.1
Buccaneers, '87 293-631 46.4 18 41 51.7
Source: Elias Sports Bureau