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


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."

"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.

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.

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.

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