For the first time since he was traded in 1996, Heath Shuler returned to the team’s headquarters Friday to take in an afternoon training camp session with his 11-year-old son, Navy.
Viewed as the franchise’s long-term answer at quarterback after the Redskins selected him out of Tennessee with the third overall selection in the 1994 NFL draft, Shuler felt compelled to make an appearance at Redskins Park by the opportunity to watch the newest quarterback to hold that unofficial title: Robert Griffin III.
The Redskins never had chosen a quarterback in the draft at a higher slot than Shuler before they selected Griffin with the second overall pick in this year’s NFL draft, and Shuler said he understands to a certain extent what Griffin is experiencing in the run-up to his rookie season.
“I’m sure it’s no different. I mean, the expectations are extremely high,” said Shuler, who has served as a U.S. Representative for North Carolina since 2007. “That’s the reason I’m here. I watched this kid play, and I was so excited, just like everyone else. He was the person I was hoping the Redskins would select in the draft.
“So with expectations high, there’s going to be a lot of added pressure to him, and I think he’s someone who can really handle it. He’s handled pressure before, and I’m very encouraged by the things I’m able to see. We’ve just got to be mindful that it takes everyone. We’re going to have ups and downs as a team, and we’ve just got to hang in there with these guys and pull them through and support them.”
Shuler made 13 starts in his first two seasons, but was traded to the New Orleans Saints for two mid-round draft picks following his third season in 1996. He retired from football before the start of the 1998 season, having completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes and thrown more than twice as many interceptions (33) as touchdowns (15) in his four-year career.
Similar to Griffin, who won the Heisman Trophy at Baylor last season, Shuler came out of college having experienced little else besides success on the field. Shuler was the Heisman runner-up in 1993, his senior season at Tennessee.
But the Redskins went a combined 9-23 during the two seasons (1994-95) in which Shuler was a starter, and he received criticism for his play from fans and the media – back when coverage stemmed from only print, radio and television outlets.
With social media and the vast and constant presence of the Internet now in play, Shuler said he imagines the potential for criticism of Griffin — should Griffin struggle — is considerably greater.
Shuler, who met briefly with Griffin on Friday, said he benefited from the negative experiences he endured.
“I read the papers,” Shuler said. “I’d come from the University of Tennessee and everything had been so good, and the path was always a paved road. There were no bumps along the way, and everything was perfect.
“And then you have these obstacles in the road, and it’s, ‘How are you going to handle them?’ Are you going to be a better person at the end of it? I think I’m a better person at the end of the day based upon what I had to go through here.”
Shuler is not seeking re-election and might have more time in the future to make return trips to watch his old team. He said he “absolutely” remains a Redskins fan, despite how his tenure with the team ended and is remembered.
“This is a game you miss; I don’t care how old you get,” Shuler said. “You bring back old memories, and you still love the game. I love to watch the game. I love to watch practice. It’s amazing how things have changed.”
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