Quarterback Heath Shuler's brief and disappointing career with the Washington Redskins came to a close last night when he was traded to the New Orleans Saints for a pair of draft choices -- a fifth-rounder this year and a third-rounder in 1998.
Shuler agreed to a four-year, $7.6 million contract with the Saints three weeks ago, but because he was a restricted free agent, he had remained the property of the Redskins until the teams could agree on compensation.
Redskins General Manager Charley Casserly had been holding out for a third-round draft choice; the Saints had been offering a pair of fifth-rounders. In the end, the sides compromised. The Redskins did get the higher draft choice -- in 1998.
And the Saints, who badly need young talent, get to keep their 1997 third-rounder. The Redskins can also enter Saturday's NFL draft with something -- albeit a fifth-rounder -- to show for Shuler, their highest draft choice in history.
"There were certain things the Saints didn't want to give up this year," Casserly said. "The way I look at it is that we got a three and a five. It's just not in that order."
Casserly surely hoped for more, but Shuler's presence on the free agent market hadn't ignited a firestorm of bidding.
This ending isn't what the Redskins had in mind when they made Shuler the third pick of the 1994 draft and predicted he would be their starting quarterback for the next decade or so.
"We all think he's still a good prospect," Casserly said. "The simple fact is that Gus Frerotte beat him out and Gus Frerotte is a better player."
Shuler had trouble from the beginning, missing 13 days of his first training camp while negotiations were completed on an eight-year, $19.25 million contract. That holdout apparently irritated fans, who were quick to boo Shuler once he did get on the field.
More costly for Shuler was the fact that his absence allowed coaches to get a longer look at Frerotte, the Redskins' seventh-round draft choice. By the time Shuler showed up, some coaches were convinced Frerotte would be better.
Shuler played erratically that first year and never quite picked up the offense. Still, he finished strongly and started the 1995 season opener. Injuries sidelined him for 11 games in 1995, and Frerotte performed capably as his replacement.
Last summer, Redskins Coach Norv Turner staged an open competition for the starting job, and Frerotte won it. That effectively ended Shuler's career in Washington. Shuler was in for just one play the entire season and didn't throw a pass. When the season ended, he exercised an escape clause that allowed him to be a restricted free agent after his third season.
In the end, the Redskins never quite found out what Shuler could or couldn't do. He didn't pick up the offense as quickly as they had hoped and, early in his career, he didn't work as hard as Frerotte, although team sources insist that problem was erased by last summer.
Turner pointed to one moment as the turning point of Shuler's career in Washington: the 1995 opener against Arizona.
"He started the game and was playing well," Turner said. "Then he separates his shoulder and Gus plays the next nine weeks. If he hadn't gotten hurt and had played the way he had at the end of the previous season, things could have been totally different for Heath here."
Shuler eventually regained the starting job, led an upset victory at Dallas and then got hurt again.
"If you get hurt, someone is going to get an opportunity and Gus took advantage of those opportunities," Turner said.
Shuler agreed to the New Orleans deal after assurances from Coach Mike Ditka that he would be given every opportunity to win the starting job. Several league sources believe veteran Jim Everett will be released before training camp if Shuler looks good in summer workouts.
Shuler will receive a $1 million signing bonus and base salaries of $200,000 in each of the first two seasons. Then he'll get $3 million in the third season and $3.2 million the fourth. Incentives make the total deal worth $12 million.
Shuler's departure gives the Redskins another $1.6 million in salary cap room. Under the league's complex cap rules, they'll still be charged about $900,000 for Shuler in 1997.
The trade gives the Redskins nine total draft picks, including three in the fifth round. CAPTION: Heath Shuler has a four-year, $7.6 million deal and a possible starting job waiting in New Orleans.