It was 18 years ago today that Washington last chose a quarterback with one of the top 20 picks in the NFL draft. In fact, the Redskins selected Tennessee’s Heath Shuler third overall in 1994, one spot behind where they will almost certainly draft Baylor’s Robert Griffin III on Thursday.
Unlike Griffin, Shuler hadn’t won the Heisman Trophy as college football’s top player. He finished second to Florida State quarterback Charlie Ward. But Shuler, who skipped his senior season, was the first quarterback taken in the draft whereas Griffin, who played four college seasons, is expected to follow Stanford’s Andrew Luck in this year’s pecking order.
Like Shuler when he came to Washington, Griffin is 22 and a superb athlete. Both are also smart. Shuler is in his third term in Congress and received 11 votes for Speaker of The House last year. Griffin had a 3.67 grade point average in political science and is working on his Master’s in communications.
However while Shuler joined a Redskins team that was coming off a 4-12 season and Griffin is coming to a team that was 5-11 last year, the new kid is luckier than his predecessor.
Shuler arrived after the Redskins had cleaned house of almost all of the coaches and many of the veteran players who had been part of their Super Bowl-winning squads. Art Monk, Charles Mann, Joe Jacoby, Jeff Bostic, Ricky Sanders and Earnest Byner were all cut and Richie Petitbon was replaced by neophyte head coach Norv Turner.
Griffin will come aboard for longtime NFL coach Mike Shanahan’s third Redskins season. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shahahan is also an NFL veteran. The only key subtractions from the 2011 team are safeties LaRon Landry and Oshiomogho Atogwe and demoted linebacker Rocky McIntosh (although receiver Jabar Gaffney will likely depart soon) while Washington has added receivers Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan, tackle James Lee and defensive backs Cedric Griffin, Tanard Jackson, Brandon Meriweather, Leigh Torrence and Madieu Williams.
“We had a rookie head coach, a rookie quarterbacks coach (Cam Cameron) who had never coached in the league and we had rookie quarterbacks,” Shuler said, referring to himself and Gus Frerotte, who combined to start the last 12 games after veteran caretaker John Friesz opened the first four. “It was kinda like, ‘What do we do now?’ “
Shuler’s Redskins were seriously rebuilding, so much so that their 3-13 record wasn’t alarming. Griffin’s Redskins are supposed to be ready to make a leap forward with him replacing retread Rex Grossman at quarterback.
While Griffin seems as poised as can be, Shuler never seemed to stop running scared. His passes during the minicamps at Redskin Park frequently hit the ground before reaching their intended targets and he didn’t help his chances of early success by missing the first 13 days of training camp in a contract dispute.
“Heath was overwhelmed,” recalled offensive lineman Ray Brown. “He had [running back Brian Mitchell] in the huddle telling him to get his plays in [on time].”
Shuler’s holdout – which Griffin would be wise not to repeat – hardly endeared him to Washington fans, who took an instant liking to seventh-rounder Frerotte, the classic underdog. Griffin doesn’t have to worry about the crowd calling for turnover machine Grossman, who was often booed last season.
While Griffin won’t have an easy beginning with Washington’s first two games in always-loud domes in New Orleans and St. Louis, Turner foolishly gave Shuler his first start against two-time defending Super Bowl champion Dallas. The rookie completed just 11 of 30 passes for 96 yards in a 34-7 wipeout. Shuler finished the season 1-7 with an ugly 59.6 quarterback rating.
Injuries and his poor play limited Shuler to just 125 passes during his second season. Frerotte beat him out in the summer of 1996 en route to the Pro Bowl and Washington’s first winning season in four years. Shuler’s only play in 1996 would be his last one for the Redskins. It was a reverse on which receiver Leslie Shepherd lost 14 yards against San Francisco. The RFK Stadium crowd’s jeers turned to cheers when the shaken-up Frerotte returned after being checked out by Washington’s medical staff.
“We thought Heath would come in right away and be our answer and it didn’t work out,” longtime Redskins trainer and Shuler pal Bubba Tyer said in a serious understatement.
On the eve of the 1997 draft, the Redskins traded Shuler to New Orleans for third- and fifth-round picks. A serious foot injury ruined his season with the Saints and ended his football career when he tried to make the Oakland Raiders the following summer.
Suffice it to say that Griffin won’t have to be a star to top Shuler, who is better at passing bills than he was at passing footballs.
David Elfin began covering sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March.