“To this day I don’t think anyone can figure out why Heath Shuler wasn’t successful,” Cameron says. “He had all the measurables for a guy to be successful. It just didn’t happen.”
Twenty-five years ago Wednesday, the Redskins drafted the quarterback who was going to be their future. They took Shuler with the third pick of the 1994 draft, and it seemed like the perfect choice. Shuler had been a star at the University of Tennessee, turning pro after his junior season. He projected as a superstar, with the size and athleticism that coaches love and the ability to rocket throws past defenders with uncanny accuracy.
Norv Turner, the Redskins’ coach at the time, saw in Shuler a player he once turned into a Hall of Famer when he was offensive coordinator of the Dallas Cowboys. He saw Troy Aikman.
At a minimum, Washington saw Shuler’s arrival as an improvement over what had transpired in the previous 12 months. Barely more than two years had passed since the Redskins had won their most recent Super Bowl on Jan. 26, 1992. Then came the sudden first retirement of longtime coach Joe Gibbs a season later, a plunge to 4-12 under Richie Petitbon, the firing of Petitbon, the hiring of Turner and the dumping of millions of dollars in bloated player contracts that would not fit under the league’s new salary cap. One of the NFL’s model franchises had crashed, and Shuler was going to bring the winning back.
Instead, his selection was the beginning of a cascade of botched or ill-fated quarterback decisions that has put the Redskins back in the same place a quarter of a century later: desperate to draft a quarterback who can stop the franchise from careening into irrelevance and bring back winning again. Long before Alex Smith’s leg broke and the ensuing surgeries to remove infection from the wound left Washington looking for its next quarterback, Shuler arrived heralded as a savior before he left with a 4-9 record and six more interceptions than touchdown passes.
And the question Cameron asked himself so long after: How could the gift of the draft’s third pick go so wrong?
‘It was the popular choice’
It wasn’t as though Shuler didn’t care. Cameron, who was impressed by the way Shuler showed up alone, without an agent, for a dinner with the Redskins contingent during a campus visit before the draft, always liked Shuler personally. Charley Casserly, the team’s general manager, enjoyed him, too. They are among the many people impressed with the way Shuler moved seamlessly from the disaster of his NFL career to a successful real estate company, to eventually becoming a three-term moderate Democrat congressman from the Asheville, N.C., area, to a new life as a Washington insider.
“He’s become very successful in his life after football,” Casserly says.
In 1994, everyone around the Redskins was convinced Shuler was going to thrive as the team’s next quarterback. The draft’s only other top quarterback prospect was Fresno State’s Trent Dilfer. And while many in the team’s headquarters loved Dilfer’s toughness and leadership potential, to the point that Dilfer actually was the top-rated quarterback on the Redskins’ draft board, the team’s decision-makers quickly settled on Shuler as the ideal fit for Turner’s offense.
“I wouldn’t say it was the obvious choice,” Casserly recalls. “It was the popular choice.”
What they didn’t know was how little Shuler — who did not respond to interview requests for this story — really knew. On his game tape, he looked like a dynamic passer and scrambler, but the video images disguised the simplicity of Tennessee’s offense. Shuler’s pro day in Knoxville was carefully controlled in an indoor facility with Shuler throwing to stationary targets. At a private Redskins session the next day, Shuler again impressed during an indoor workout. Months later, when Shuler struggled with his accuracy, Cameron vowed to himself that he would work out every quarterback prospect outdoors just to see how he handled the change in conditions.
But the Washington contingent believed Turner and Cameron would be able to teach Shuler the things he didn’t know. The Redskins were rebuilding that year anyway, and Shuler wasn’t expected to be a superstar in his first season. Then came the holdout.
Looking back, it wasn’t Shuler’s fault he didn’t have a contract before the start of training camp. He was the victim of a new NFL salary cap that teams were still figuring out, and after Casserly and Shuler’s agent, Tom Condon, reached an agreement in principle, the deal was held up while the new concept was debated by lawyers. And so Shuler missed the first two weeks of training camp before signing an eight-year, $19.25 million contract. Not that the public understood that. All anyone knew was the Redskins’ new quarterback had held out, and the expectations were huge.
“You better be John Elway from jump street,” Washington Post columnist Michael Wilbon wrote on the day Shuler got to camp.
If there was one thing that surprised the Washington coaches the most about Shuler, it was the way the offense didn’t come naturally. The holdout had given Gus Frerotte (whom the Redskins took in the draft’s seventh round) time with the team that Shuler didn’t have. Shuler tried to catch up but struggled after being named the starter early in the regular season, and Washington kept losing. When Shuler was intercepted five times by Arizona, Cameron sensed the rest of the team was losing faith in the rookie.
“It’s still a decision-making position. The locker room won’t follow a guy who can’t make good decisions over time,” Cameron says. “That’s the nature of this business. In practice there was constant decision-making [from Shuler] that you wouldn’t expect from a high-round pick.”
He played just eight games for the Redskins over the next two years, a shoulder injury and more turnovers sealing his doom as Frerotte took over. But Cameron also wonders whether something else was a problem for Shuler. Washington, Cameron started to realize, was different from other cities. Things were bigger around the Redskins with all the recent Super Bowls, and retired star quarterbacks such as Sonny Jurgensen and Joe Theismann often were at practice. Advice for Shuler came from everywhere. Cameron believes that while everyone meant well, there were simply too many voices in Shuler’s head.
“Heath is a pleaser. That’s why he’s such a good guy,” Cameron says. “But he wasn’t emotionally where you needed him to be. I think he would have benefited from staying in school another year. He couldn’t let it all go in one ear and out the other. He didn’t need to let it all ricochet around in his head.”
The Redskins decided to move on after the 1996 season, trading Shuler to New Orleans for third- and fifth-round draft picks. He played 10 games for the Saints, throwing two touchdowns against 14 interceptions. After another foot injury, his career essentially was over.
“It was God’s way of saying there are other things in life,” Shuler told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 2015 after a speech in Little Rock.
‘Third and Long’
From North Carolina, Andrew Whalen sighs. Every April, it seems, there comes a call about Heath Shuler. As Shuler’s congressional press secretary for the first of Shuler’s three terms, Whalen read the stories, heard the comments on the radio shows or scanned the blog posts about what everyone was calling one of the biggest busts in the history of the NFL draft. Maybe because he was a sports fan himself, dying with his beloved Cleveland Browns, he felt as though he understood just who Shuler was before they came together during Shuler’s first congressional campaign.
“How long does it have to be before people stop talking about this?” Whalen asks.
They rode for days in Shuler’s pickup truck in the fall of 2006, making a lot of stops at campaign gatherings and small county functions. Whalen came to recognize the glimmer of understanding that flickered across people’s faces as Shuler and football connected in their minds. What amazed Whalen was how Shuler deflected the bad, laughing or making a joke. He named his Political Action Committee “Third and Long,” because as he would tell staffers, it described both his football career and the plight of being a conservative Democrat on Capitol Hill.
Once, a fan started a website called StopShuler.com. The premise was not political; it was just the impulsive ranting of a Redskins fan who wanted nothing of Shuler in D.C. Whalen told Shuler about the site, and Shuler blurted, “Let’s call him up!” Whalen tried to deflect the idea, but Shuler insisted. “Come on, it will be fun,” Whalen remembers Shuler saying.
Whalen has vague memories of Shuler talking to the man from the cab of his truck after an event at a hotel. Deadspin later wrote about the encounter, quoting the site, which is now gone.
“Did you hear me boo?” the fan asked Shuler, according to Deadspin.
“You know, was that you guys that had the beach ball taken away?” Shuler responded. “I heard some boos when that happened. I’m sure it wasn’t because of an interception or anything.”
Later, when talking to reporters during a 2012 stop at Redskins training camp, Shuler explained how he viewed his time with the team.
“I read the papers. I’d come from the University of Tennessee and everything had been so good and the path was always a paved road,” he said. “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 on what I had to go through here.”
By then Shuler had long moved on, no longer the quarterback but a leader of a group of moderate Democrats named the Blue Dogs and a congressman who lost a challenge to Nancy Pelosi to lead the House Democrats.
Whalen remembers the shock that staffers of some others in Congress expressed when they found out that Shuler had actually come up with ideas for legislation.
“They couldn’t believe some jock came up with the idea,” he says.
Football was a distant memory. He did not run for a fourth term after his district was redrawn, and he became a policy specialist for Duke Energy and most recently for the law firm BakerHostetler.
And yet those who were around Shuler in Washington wonder whether somehow things could have been different. Casserly is forever haunted by the fact that at the same time New Orleans offered its trade for Shuler, Green Bay General Manager Ron Wolf made a similar offer. At the time, the Packers had just won a Super Bowl with Brett Favre, but their coach, Mike Holmgren, was known for his ability to develop quarterbacks.
Casserly says he gave Shuler the option between New Orleans and Green Bay, urging Shuler to choose the Packers. But the Saints were offering a chance to start, and Shuler chose New Orleans. Soon, he was done.
From San Diego, Cameron sighs.
“People can be critical of Heath Shuler, but I’m not sure any quarterback could have withstood that pressure,” he says. “It was so high, and they could never sustain what they had. They had three Super Bowl wins with three different quarterbacks and never had that franchise guy. Now here was the franchise guy, and everyone was expecting more Super Bowls.”
Super Bowls that still haven’t come.