The Pendulum Swing of Heath Shuler

On the 15th Anniversary of the Washington Redskins selecting Tennessee QB Heath Shuler with the #3 overall pick in the 1994 NFL Draft, we look back at his career and his legacy, on and off the field.

To fully understand and appreciate Heath Shuler's career at Tennessee, you have to remember the two quarterbacks who came before and after him.

When Shuler was signed, the Vols were in the safe hands of Andy Kelly.  Kelly led Tennessee to a 29-6-2 record from 1989-1991, winning two SEC Championships and guiding the Vols to final rankings of 5th, 7th and 14th in each of his three seasons under center.  The Tennessee native also rewrote the passing record book in Knoxville.  Kelly wasn't an NFL talent (though he would go on to author the Arena Football record book as his second work), but he was a proven winner, and that guy just found ways to win.

At the twilight of Kelly's storied Tennessee career, the whispers began to spread about Shuler's talent.  How the North Carolina native had an NFL arm, and that he also had mobility that Kelly could only dream of.  How Shuler was going to be the most talented Vol quarterback since Tony Robinson, playing on the heels of the best passer in Tennessee history.

If there is one player who is most responsible for Phillip Fulmer's ascension to the role of head coach at the University of Tennessee, it's Shuler.  It's interesting now to look back 17 years ago, to those initial games with Johnny Majors on bedrest and a youthful looking Fulmer roaming the sidelines.  Fulmer and Shuler would begin their careers at the two most difficult positions on campus on the same night, their fates joined at the hip.

I remember Shuler throwing an early interception on a risky pass against Directional Louisiana in the season opener, and thinking "Well, this kid's not Andy Kelly."

And I was right.

The Most Important Two Weeks in Tennessee Football History

After disposing of SWLA 38-3 in the opener, the Vols went on the road to face #14 Georgia.  Behind Shuler's legs and some veteran playmaking for a sophomore in his second start - including a 4th and 13 prayer on the Vols' final drive to win - Tennessee upset Georgia 34-31.

Then, when everyone assumed it was a flash in the pan performance on the part of both Shuler and Fulmer, the Vols showed the nation it wasn't with a dominating 31-14 win over #4 Florida in a Knoxville downpour.

In two weeks, the Vols had gone from a rebuilding afterthought to a top ten team, Shuler had become an SEC household name in just three starts, and Phillip Fulmer was college football's hottest coaching commodity.  Shuler was a Johnny Majors recruit, and I can't speak for him or tell you his feelings in detail about the relationship between Majors and Fulmer.  But what I do know is that because of what Heath Shuler did in two September Saturdays in 1992, Phillip Fulmer's life and the path of Tennessee Football would change dramatically.

The Three Most Excruciating Weeks in Tennessee Football History

By the second week of October, the Vols were 5-0 and ranked #4, and Johnny Majors was back on the sidelines quicker than anyone expected. 

And then everything fell apart.

First, the Vols lost 25-24 to unranked Arkansas in Knoxville, thanks to a last second field goal that capped a wild fourth quarter rally for the Hogs.  The following week, Tennessee had to recover to face eventual National Champion Alabama, who would claim their seventh straight win over the Vols 17-10, with a late Tennessee turnover sealing it.

Still, thanks to their wins over Florida and Georgia, the Vols could still win the SEC East and play in the first ever SEC Championship Game if they won out.  Tennessee went to South Carolina the very next week, and fell 24-23 when they couldn't convert on a two point attempt to win after scoring a touchdown in the game's final minutes.

Three weeks, three losses, nine points.  All shot dead on the final drive of the game.  The Vols fell from 4th to 23rd in the polls, and fell out of the SEC East race.

And Johnny Majors was finished.

The Second Best Player in America

With Majors' resignation announced, the Vols scrapped together three wins in their final three games, and Fulmer's first opportunity as official head coach came against Boston College in the Hall of Fame Bowl.  This was Shuler's national coming out party, going 18 of 23 for 245 yards, two touchdowns in the air and two more on the ground in a 38-23 Tennessee win.

As a junior in 1993, Shuler directed what is still, statistically speaking, the best offense in Tennessee Football history (441 yards and 39 points per game).  The Vols began the year as a top ten team and finished the regular season 9-1-1.  The Vols lost a 41-34 Shuler-Danny Wuerffel shootout to Florida, and tied #2 Alabama 17-17 in a game Shuler played with a separated shoulder and that was later forfeited to Tennessee.

Shuler passed for 2,353 yards and 25 touchdowns, obliterating the old record of 18. And it was more than his numbers, it was his ability and playmaking that wowed both college fans and NFL scouts.

Shuler had a knack for rolling out and then firing a 100 MPH fastball in between three defenders, and hitting Cory Fleming or Craig Faulkner in the chest.  His arm and mobility allowed him to become one of the best playmakers of the decade in the SEC.

Because of these talents, and the fact that Heisman runner-ups grow on trees in Knoxville, Shuler finished second at the Downtown Athletic Club, having the misfortune of playing in the same year as Charlie Ward and Florida State's first National Championship in one of the most obvious Heisman votes in recent memory.

Still, Shuler was believed to be the most NFL-ready quarterback in college football...and Shuler declared his intention to bypass his senior season in Knoxville, and follow his dream of playing in the NFL.

The Third Pick in the Draft

No Tennessee quarterback had ever found longterm success in the NFL.  So as Shuler's stock continued to rise leading up to Draft Day, and in the pre-Tennessee Titans era of the NFL with no in-state team to cheer for, every Vol fan waited with baited breath to see where Shuler would land, with that team certain to receive an entirely new fanbase in Knoxville.

Shuler was the third pick of the 1994 NFL Draft, taken by the Washington Redskins.  The 13 year old version of me couldn't wait to get to the mall and buy a Shuler #5 jersey.  The franchise was solid, the tradition was great, and it seemed like this was going to be a great fit, and Shuler would be not just the 'Skins quarterback of the future, but the present.

Shuler held out during training camp, ultimately signing a 7 year deal worth just under $20 million (remember, this is 1994 money).  He went into the fire, starting early and getting his feet wet.

The NFL often takes a rookie quarterback's best shot and laughs at it.  And Shuler's '94 season in Washington was off to a similar start.  Most notably, Shuler's knack for those risky throws that his arm strength allowed in college, NFL defenses feasted on.  What we now call the "I'm Heath Shuler, and I WILL make this throw" syndrome brought, as it has for many, great success in college, and great disaster in the NFL.

In a game against the Cardinals, Shuler fired five interceptions.  From there, we were introduced to the name Gus Frerotte - I even still remember how to spell it without looking it up - who began taking some of Shuler's reps. 

Ultimately, his rookie campaign ended with 10 TDs and 12 INTs in 8 starts, but the Redskins went 1-7 in those games.  The following year, Shuler started five games and the Redskins won three of them, but he had a 3-7 TD/INT ratio, and was sacked 13 times.  Frerotte saw more and more action (and eventually made a Pro Bowl), and Shuler's days in Washington were coming to a hard and bitter end.

He would be given a chance to shed the "bust" label when the 'Skins traded him to Mike Ditka's New Orleans Saints in 1997.  But Shuler continued to regress:  2 TDs to a horrendous 14 INTs in 9 starts to go with 21 sacks and a 4-5 record.

The following year, Shuler suffered a foot injury, and was forced to retire at the early age of 27.  Might things have been different had he not injured his foot?  Maybe.  Might things have been different had he not left school early and stayed at Tennessee?  Maybe...but remember how that story worked out for the Vols:

Legacy

Andy Kelly was arguably the best quarterback in Tennessee Football history when Shuler came along.  Then Shuler was arguably the most talented.

Then Peyton Manning came in the very next year, and inarguably made everyone forget about everyone else.

Manning not only passed every other quarterback for every record in Tennessee's book, he has become the anti-Shuler story in the NFL.  Shuler was drafted third and became a bust.  Manning was picked first and has won MVPs, a Super Bowl, and the hearts of millions of television viewers, both on the field and in commercials.  The dichotomy here is the reason (almost) everyone in East Tennessee is a Colts fan and not a Redskins fan.

And for the Vols, Shuler leaving early seemed painful at the time, but was the first in a string of events that led to the 1998 National Championship:  Shuler leaving early led to Jerry Colquitt blowing out his knee in the first game of the 1994 season, which led to Peyton Manning playing as a true freshman, which helped Manning become a great quarterback on an accelerated timetable, whose decision to stay in school for his senior season led to an SEC Championship, which opened the door for a more seasoned Tee Martin to step in in 1998 after the Vols had been destroyed by Nebraska, and carry the team to the promised land.  What happened happened and couldn't have happened any other way.

Everything that happened immediately before and after Shuler was so good, and the guy who came right after him became so iconic that perhaps we fail to remember Shuler's impact on the program.

And yes, he was an NFL bust.  But the pendulum has swung once more for Shuler in Washington:  after establishing a successful real estate business in East Tennessee, Shuler got into politics, and won a seat in the House in 2006.

Although ESPN last year listed him at #4 on the All Time NFL Draft Bust List, they also caught up with him in Washington, where his political career appears to be on the opposite path as his NFL stint.

Shuler's fingerprints are momentous.  He was the catalyst of the Johnny Majors/Phillip Fulmer drama.  He led the best offense in Tennessee Football history and finished second in the Heisman Trophy race.  He was the third pick in the NFL Draft and became one of its biggest busts.  And now in Washington he continues to build his legacy from the political side of Capitol Hill.

As a Vol, our only memories of Shuler are great ones...and his role in the journey of Tennessee Football cannot be understated.

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