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The Shuler Plan : Tennessee Standout Seen Extending Redskins’ Royal Line at Quarterback

THE SPORTING NEWS

The kid drops back while Henry Ellard and Desmond Howard streak downfield. The receivers screech-stop 20 yards from the line of scrimmage and come back toward the play. One of them, the one in single coverage, is open, the buttonhook enough to spring him from the cornerback before the free safety can get there.

Too bad. The quarterback isn’t looking at his wideouts. His reads on this play don’t extend beyond tight end Ethan Horton’s curl pattern and running back Ricky Ervins’ crossing route. Ervins makes the safe catch and picks up maybe six yards.

Ellard is open downfield for at least 15, if the quarterback looks. But Ellard isn’t in “The Plan” on this play. The patterns look the same as they did in Norv Turner’s playbook last season in Dallas when Troy Aikman regularly hit Michael Irvin or Alvin Harper on the buttonhook. Only now the plan has the quarterback reading the routes of maybe only half of his available receivers.

“Yeah, that could happen,” says Ellard, the 12-year wide receiver who left the Los Angeles Rams last spring to sign a free-agent contract with the Washington Redskins. “There’s always that chance. We’ll just have to stay basic for a while, but that’s all part of the game. You have to be patient with that.”

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“The Plan,” if it works the way Turner designs it as the new coach in Washington, will sacrifice a few yards here and there for the sake of a greater good: the proper care and feeding of Heath Shuler, first-round draft choice and next in the Redskins’ royal Sammy Baugh-Sonny Jurgensen-Billy Kilmer-Joe Theismann-Doug Williams-Mark Rypien line of quarterbacks.

Shuler, who sometime soon will become the first rookie to start a game at quarterback for Washington (excluding the strike team in 1987) since Norm Snead in 1961, is the heir to that legacy. Or error to it, depending on how well Turner’s plan works.

“He’s already got a pretty good overview of what we do,” says Turner, who comes to the Redskins from consecutive Super Bowl victories as the Cowboys’ offensive coordinator. “Now, we’re going to get into the details and see how many things between now and when we get to that first game that he can handle both verbally and mentally. And he has to not only be able to handle them; he has to get real good at them. If he’s just OK at a lot of things, we’ve got real problems. But if he can get real good at some specific things, then we can gear a game plan towards him.”

The plan to Shulerize the Redskins is threefold: prepare, simplify and protect. The preparation started right after Turner and Washington General Manager Charley Casserly made Shuler the third pick in the first round, beginning with a minicamp in late April in which the coaching staff threw the playbook at him. The simplification comes in the form of reads on plays, such as the one addressed above, in which Shuler’s options are minimized. And the protection comes from an offensive line that, if healthy, ought to give Shuler more time to make decisions with the ball than most rookie quarterbacks enjoy.

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Turner thinks it can be done, even if the ‘Skins don’t exactly have history on their side.

Many have tried to turn a rookie quarterback into an overnight sensation in the National Football League; few have succeeded, especially in recent years. The list of successes pretty much starts and ends with Don Shula and Dan Marino in 1983, when Marino started nine games for Shula’s Miami Dolphins and won seven of them, recording 20 touchdown passes, six interceptions and a 96.0 passer rating. But Marino was the 27th player chosen in the first round in ’83. He joined a team that already was good enough to have played in the Super Bowl the previous January.

The other rookie quarterbacks who have started in the last 15 years or so didn’t have that kind of support when they entered the league. Most of them, like Shuler coming to a team that was 4-12 in ’93, were high draft choices on bad teams. Some had downright dreadful numbers as rookies, such as Randall Cunningham’s efficiency rating of 29.8 in four starts (1-3) as a rookie with the Philadelphia Eagles and Troy Aikman’s 0-11 record as a starter in the Dallas Cowboys’ 1-15 season of 1989.

Last year, the league’s top two draft picks--the New England Patriots’ Drew Bledsoe and the Seattle Seahawks’ Rick Mirer--started for their new teams and showed . . . well, promise at best. Mirer started all 16 of the Seahawks’ games, went 6-10, passed for 2,833 yards at a 56.4% completion rate and was heavier on the interceptions (17) than the TDs (12). Bledsoe was 5-7 in his 12 starts, completed only 49.9% of his passes for 2,494 yards and threw as many touchdown passes (15) as interceptions.

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Bill Parcells and Tom Flores no doubt had training-camp plans for the immediate integration of their rookies into the league, too, although Parcells says now that Bledsoe started last year only because he was the least of the quarterbacking evils on the Patriots.

“I don’t think he was ready to start the season,” Parcells says. “There was no question he wasn’t ready. We just didn’t have anybody that was better who was more ready. We just went with him knowing we were going to have to live with a lot of bad plays and a lot of bad decisions.”

But Turner isn’t daunted by the history, especially the Patriots’ history. Doesn’t apply to the Redskins, he says.

“I heard Parcells said they wouldn’t have played Bledsoe if they had another guy,” Turner says. “Well, we’ve got another guy. John Friesz is capable of starting. He’s won games in this league. He’s having an outstanding training camp, so some of the pressure comes off Heath. If Heath is ready to do some things, we’ll use him. If he isn’t ready, John is quite capable of playing. I’m glad Parcells made that comment. That adds to my rhetoric.”

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But no ‘Skins fan worth his hog-snout is going to stomach prolonged exposure to John Friesz, if the third pick of the draft is healthy and available and visible on the sideline. And Turner knows it, which is one of the reasons he has been talking since draft day about making Shuler the starter. The Redskins, aware they could draft Fresno State’s Trent Dilfer if Shuler were picked earlier, signed Friesz away from the San Diego Chargers in April to occupy the blink-of-an-eye time slot between the end of their rookie’s college career and his first snap as a pro.

Overblown demands from local fans are one of the problems every highly drafted quarterback faces, and Shuler shouldn’t be exempted in Washington. Even the best of them experience some difficulty with the pressure of their potential.

“One of the first things you can’t do is try to live up to the expectations,” says John Elway, whose rookie season in 1983 was less than memorable at 4-6 as the Denver Broncos’ starter with a 47.5% completion rate and twice as many interceptions (14) as touchdowns (7). “People don’t realize how difficult the transition is. Heath, coming into a new system, is going to have a hard enough time just getting the offense to where he feels comfortable with it, knowing the quick decisions and reading the different defenses and coverages he’s going to be seeing.

“I hope he has a great year, but I’m sure that people are going to always expect him to do a little bit more than he does because he was a high draft pick. People are expecting him to be the franchise, but it always takes two, three, four years before you can really feel comfortable.”

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Welcome to the NFL, Heath. Here’s hoping Norv’s plan works for you, buddy. Here’s hoping all those extra hours of cramming during the summer and in training camp give you a better chance than those other rookie starters had. Here’s hoping all your rookie optimism isn’t undermined by the realities of the NFL.

“I wouldn’t consider the Redskins a bad team,” Shuler says. “I mean, it wasn’t but a few years ago that they won the Super Bowl. I think I’m real fortunate, real lucky, to come to such a team. Washington has a great tradition. This is a good situation, especially with Coach Turner being here and the coaching staff he’s put together. I know we’ll be better than we were last year.”

If anybody other than Don Shula can pull this off, Turner can. In his first season with the Cowboys, he helped Aikman take the quantum leap from mediocrity to superstardom, and he did it with a plan not unlike his formula for Shuler. Even though Aikman had been playing for a couple of years, Turner kept the offense basic for him in their first season together. The difference was noticeable, immediately.

In Aikman’s first two years in the league (1989-90)--without Turner--he completed 55.1% of his passes with 20 touchdowns and 36 interceptions. In the last three seasons--with Turner--Aikman has 49 touchdown passes and 30 interceptions and he has completed 69% of his passes. The effect on his efficiency rating is remarkable: from 62.0 in the two years B.T. (Before Turner) to 91.7 in the last three. Aikman was the Super Bowl MVP after the 1992 season.

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Maybe Aikman would have improved that much in his third season, anyway. Most quarterbacks say it takes about that long to feel comfortable in the NFL. But Aikman doesn’t downplay his former offensive coordinator’s influence.

His experience in Dallas is what Shuler can expect in Washington. “Norv came in and kind of just held to the philosophy that we may not do all that much, but we’re going to disguise it with a lot of formations and a lot of motioning, and we’re going to get good at those plays we do well,” Aikman says. “Then it was just a matter of not trying to outsmart anybody. We just tried to outexecute them. That was really our philosophy during that first year Norv was here.

“As each year went on, we were able to expand. Obviously, since last season was our third year together, we were doing a lot of different things by then. We were putting in new things that Norv had not used at all in previous years. We were just kind of drawing on the board during the games, finding things we thought would work. Then we’d just put them in.”

But when Shuler showed up for his first minicamp in Washington, Turner didn’t want him thinking the pro game was so basic. Rather than ease him into the offense, as some coaches might do for a rookie, he gave Shuler everything in the book and asked him to absorb it.

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It was the shock-treatment part of the plan. “I almost wanted to overwhelm him so he understood that he had a lot to do,” Turner says. “Hell, we could’ve been calling the plays for him in the huddle in practices, and the truth is, we could get things done that way. But I wanted him to start experiencing the physical things we were going to ask him to do, too. And I wanted him to get as relaxed as he could in the atmosphere of being around the guys. By the first part of July, when we started working, he was very impressive. He put a lot of time in (before training camp), and he’s throwing the ball with a better understanding of the style of routes we want.”

As the summer progressed, though, Turner streamlined Shuler’s exposure to the big picture of the offense. The coach cut back on the quarterback’s reads, gave him fewer “hot” receivers (whose routes change in the course of a play, according to the coverage) to watch, reduced the number of audibles he might otherwise call--all designed to minimize the number of decisions Shuler will need to make in the heat of action.

Once camp opened, the plan included a detailed, day-by-day, force-feeding schedule of the food groups vital to good health as a starting quarterback. A little taste of the 40-second clock on Monday, some blitz appetizers on Tuesday, a side dish of two-deep zone on Wednesday. If this is Saturday, we must be dining on exhibition-game action. Turner had it all on Shuler’s menu--what he wanted him to digest, and when he wanted him to digest it.

“I’ve just started practicing, and the whole offense is already in,” Shuler says. “Obviously, it’s going to clutter your mind a little. But I think we’ve done a really good job. Any time you go from one offense to another, it’s going to be complicated. At Tennessee, we had a large offense, probably one of the most complicated offenses in college football. It was a lot. And when I went in there, it was the exact same thing. They threw the book at me then. So when I came here, I expected that. They have a plan for everything. The plan is to get to know the offense and do whatever it takes.”

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Shuler’s 13-day holdout from camp before he signed an eight-year, $19.25 million contract last week threw the plan a little out of kilter, but the schedule should be disrupted only temporarily. When he finally reported to Carlisle, Pa., Aug. 3, Shuler still had plenty of time. If he doesn’t start against Mirer and the Seahawks Sept. 4, it won’t be long after.


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