Maybe, just maybe, things started to turn for the Washington Redskins late Sunday. First, their new coach, Norv Turner, got the quarterback of his dreams, Heath Shuler of Tennessee, with the third pick of the NFL draft. Then, early in Round 2, the Redskins hesitated before disclosing their second choice while listening to trade offers from three teams, the Philadelphia Eagles, the Houston Oilers and the Los Angeles Raiders. If none of those teams put enough on the table, the Redskins planned to select Temple offensive lineman Tré Johnson. If Washington dealt the pick, it would fall back and choose guard Larry Allen of Sonoma State.
The ante never got high enough. The Redskins selected Johnson. "You got our guy," a Raider official said to the Redskins.
A few minutes later a staffer for the Indianapolis Colts, who had the next pick, called the Washington draft room. "That was our guy," the Colt official said of Johnson.
It seems strange to say about one of the premier franchises in the league, but it has been awhile since the Skins have had a winning day, and they really needed one. When Day 1 of the draft was over, Turner, who had fretted all week that he might lose Shuler, sat in his office with general manager Charley Casserly and allowed himself a mile-wide grin. "We're a better football team this evening than we were this morning," Turner said.
Every team says that at the end of every draft day. Few teams needed to say it as much as the 1994 Redskins did. Washington finished last season with a 4-12 record under first-year coach Richie Petitbon; it was the team's worst showing in 30 years. To make matters worse, at the end of the season, according to Casserly, the Redskins had a $52 million payroll, nearly $18 million more than the salary cap that takes effect this season. An ugly combination: a bad team with a bloated payroll.
In the last four months the Redskins have fired Petitbon and a crop of longtime assistants. They have also divorced 13 players, including the leading receiver in league history and the MVP of Super Bowl XXVI, and in the process have cut their payroll by $21 million. Turner, who had run the Dallas Cowboy offense for three years, was hired in February, and he will have three new quarterbacks to choose from: free agents John Friesz and Pat O'Hara and, now, Shuler.
On the weekend after Turner signed a five-year contract to coach the Redskins, he took home videotapes of Shuler and Fresno State's Trent Dilfer, the top two quarterbacks available in the draft. The Washington video staff had assembled footage of every one of Shuler's 285 throws and Dilfer's 337 in 1993 from end zone and sideline cameras. The body of work convinced Turner that the 6'2", 221-pound Shuler, a gritty kid with a superb arm and quick feet, was the guy for the Redskins.
Somewhere in the middle of the six Shuler tapes, Turner saw the play he needed to see. On Tennessee's first drive at Alabama, Shuler dropped into a shotgun formation at the Crimson Tide 25-yard line and took the snap. Alabama blitzed. The Volunteers' line couldn't pick up every rusher. An Alabama player steamed in from Shuler's right, unblocked. There was going to be a collision.
"But Heath waited," Turner recalled. "He knew he was going to take a huge hit, but he waited until the last possible tick and lofted a throw high in the air toward his slot receiver, giving him time to run under it. It was a perfect touch pass. Touchdown."
"A lot of times," Shuler said on Sunday, remembering the play, "you know you're going to take a lick when you throw. It's part of being a quarterback. A lot of quarterbacks change their form or technique because of a rush, but I don't think you can do that. You have to throw the ball the same way you always would and not worry about the rush. Anyway, the punishment's not near as bad when you complete the pass for a touchdown, which we did on that play."