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On The Spot
E.M. Swift
September 05, 1994
The NFL's new salary structure has put added pressure on high-priced rookies to step in and perform right away
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September 05, 1994

On The Spot

The NFL's new salary structure has put added pressure on high-priced rookies to step in and perform right away

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The former Ohio State defensive tackle was the first player taken in the draft, and no matter how hard Bengal officials try to tell you otherwise, big things are being demanded of Big Daddy. "We expect him to be a solid player for us," understates coach Dave Shula, whose defense last season was a dreadful 27th against the run. "At times he'll stand out. At other times you won't know he's there."

That is a pretty apt description of Wilkinson's play during the preseason, hard as it might be to believe that one could somehow be oblivious to the presence of a 6'4", 313-pound mastodon who runs the 40 in 4.72 and can bench-press 500 pounds. But in the Bengals' first three exhibition games, playing with the first unit, Wilkinson made only one tackle, one assist and one sack. The Bengal coaches, though, were satisfied, terming his contributions "above and beyond" what they had expected.

Cincinnati pass rushers combined for a mere 22 sacks last season, second lowest in the NFL, and when Alfred Williams had 1½ sacks two weeks ago against the Eagles, he was quick to credit Big Daddy, who lines up beside Williams on the right side, for commanding double teams of blockers. Says first-year defensive coordinator Larry Peccatiello, "We tell [Wilkinson] that he doesn't have to be Tarzan just because the media wants to hype him up." Right. And it was media hype that made Wilkinson the highest-paid Bengal of all time (six years, $14.47 million, including a $5 million bonus) before he had played a single NFL down.

So far, the even-keeled Wilkinson is unfazed by the attention. "The only pressure I feel is to be the type of player I know I can be," he says. "Basically, they just tell me to go out there and play my ball."

In Cincinnati, which finished last in the AFC Central the last three years, the hope is that Big Daddy ball is a whole new game.

Heath Shuler, Washington Redskins.

Before the implementation of the salary cap, Shuler, the first quarterback drafted this year and the third player taken overall, would have had zero chance of making an immediate splash with the Redskins, an organization that never met a veteran free agent it didn't like. Or a rookie it did. This was the franchise, remember, that wheeled out 40-year-old Sonny Jurgensen, 38-year-old Billy Kilmer and 36-year-old Chris Hanburger when George Alien was the coach, and that had Joe Theismann returning punts until he had been adequately seasoned as a quarterback. Joe Gibbs, the coach who took the Skins to the Super Bowl in 1982, '87 and '91, would have eaten slop for a month before allowing a rookie quarterback to line up behind his Hogs.

But those were the glory years, and after last season's 4-12 record, Washington's worst in 30 years, the Redskins have made wholesale changes, firing coach Richie Petitbon and slashing their payroll. Among the casualties was 1991 Super Bowl hero Mark Rypien, who balked when the Redskins tried to cut his pay from $3 million a year to a base salary of $700,000. That opened the door for Shuler, though the former Tennessee star is not apt to make a pretty entrance.

Like any number of rookie quarterbacks who started almost immediately and eventually made it big—Troy Aikman and Terry Bradshaw, to name two—the 6'2", 221-pound Shuler will be in for a long first season. The Redskin offensive scheme, brought from Dallas by first-year coach Norv Turner, is new. The offensive line is in that dicey "jelling" stage. And Shuler, who missed 13 days of training camp while his eight-year, $19.25 million deal was being hammered out, is still playing catch-up with the rest of his teammates.

Says Turner, "No question, it's easier on a young quarterback to have him watch for a couple of years within the system. Heath's going to face some adversity, but he'll learn from it."

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