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Heath Shuler, we hardly knew ya. Not since William Henry “I Don’t Do Overcoats” Harrison has a reign as toast of this town been so brief. But when it’s over, it’s over.
Sure, this love affair with Gus is brand new and oh, so unexpected. And yes, so much had been invested in the courtship of Heath. But after the exhilaration of last weekend, everything’s changed. There’s just no going back to the way things were. People may say the odds of a long-term relationship with the new guy are slim, but right now it sure feels like more than a brief fling. So why string things out? Why pretend there’s still a chance things can be worked out?
Goodbye, Heath. You’re still young, rich. You’ll find somebody else….
Last week, a typically staid Washington press briefing was interrupted when a Stuttering John wanna-be from ESPN asked Christine Shelley, deputy spokesperson for the State Department, what she thought about Gus Frerotte. The look of utter stupefaction on Shelley’s face recalled Shuler’s countenance the first time he faced a Dallas Cowboys blitz.
Let’s just say Frerotte’s Q rating has gone up a few points. He’s not just Washington’s sweetheart. Frerotte is already a media darling way beyond the Beltway: ABC devoted the halftime of its Monday Night Football broadcast to a retelling of the Gus Frerotte Story.
And why not? It’s a great tale. Plain and simple, Gus is the anti- Heath. Shuler: firstround pick, training camp holdout, multimillionaire. Gus: last-round pick, training camp standout, minimum-wager. The French Resistance was easier to root against.
Frerotte’s advent couldn’t have been more timely. The second half of a season that only a week ago seemed beyond redemption is suddenly gripping. Next Sunday can’t come too soon! For the time being, next year’s draft is irrelevant, and terms like “home field advantage” are right back in the Washington vernacular.
Don’t feel too sorry for the dear departed Shuler. Even a State Department flack can understand that while Shuler, much like Gen. Cédras, did lose his job, he still gets to keep all that money. (Besides—who’s kidding whom?—we haven’t heard the last of Cédras, either.)
Damn if Frerotte didn’t appear Canton-friendly against those Colts. Not since Sonny Jurgensen has Washington had a quarterback who looked so good in slo-mo, all perfect mechanics and oh-so-tight spirals. (Strange, considering he was using the very same balls Heath found so slick and un-grippable.)
Make no mistake, a couple of losses and Frerotte’s nickname goes from Gus ForReal to the Stiff From Ford Cliff. He wouldn’t be the first local quarterback to morph from Underdog to Top Dog to Just Plain Dog in a matter of mere weeks. It’s no secret that Redskins fans are as fickle as overbred Dobermans.
That said, there really could be more than just blind optimism behind the rampant GusMania. Wins and losses are another matter, but everything Frerotte did on Sunday could be duplicated week after week. It could be argued that the most inspiring moments of Frerotte’s debut came on no-gainers. At least half of Frerotte’s incompletes came on plays in which he looked left, looked down the middle, looked right, and intentionally threw the ball where nobody could catch it.
During their failed stints as starters, Shuler and John Friesz were too often pressured into turning the ball over or tackled for huge losses. Frerotte’s method? When in doubt, throw it out of bounds, huddle up, and try again. It’s not coincidental that he wasn’t sacked once, or that the Redskins converted 9 of 16 third downs against the Colts. By contrast, in the three games under Shuler, Washington converted just 5 of 32.
In retrospect, Frerotte’s steady, sturdy play against the Colts was absolutely foreshadowed by his steady, sturdy preseason performance. During the exhibition games, after all, Frerotte threw more TD passes than either Friesz or Shuler, and he was, remember, the only Redskin QB not to throw an interception.
Overcautious hacks (none that this writer wants to admit to knowing) repeatedly warned that Frerotte’s preseason numbers shouldn’t be too closely heeded, since those stats were registered against second- and third-team detritus. But in the days before the Colts game, Frerotte quietly suggested that the skeptics might also consider that he was joined on the field by the worst the Redskins had to offer during the preseason, and that maybe judgment should be withheld until he got a chance in a first team vs. first team scrimmage.
That judgment is in, and Frerotte gets at least one more shot as a starter. Assuming Coach Norv Turner doesn’t have an all-Kevlar wardrobe, he has no choice but to let Gus play himself out of a job.
So here come the Philadelphia Eagles. This game will go a long way toward defining the Heath-or-Gus? debate. It’s quite true that Shuler never got the chance to face a defense as porous as the Colts’; he did go up against the Eagles, though. And despite some nice long tosses to Tydus Winans, Shuler ended up completing just 10 of 27 passes—and losing.
Everything about the Colts game pales next to Frerotte’s glorious deeds, but the play of the Redskins’ defense also gives fans reason to stay tuned. Yes, Washington still has given up more points and more yardage than any team in the league. But for the first time since New Orleans, the Redskins weren’t obviously outcoached after the opening kickoff. (For all the team’s blunders, it remains accurate that Washington has had a second-half lead in all but the Seattle and Dallas games.)
Defensive coordinator Ron Lynn actually adjusted his game plan midgame, just like Richie Petitbon so often did in the salad days. It’s still troubling that the tinkering was necessary: Despite all the time allegedly spent at Redskin Park viewing game films, Lynn had somehow neglected to notice that the Colts’ offense is as dependent on Marshall Faulk as any NFL team has been on one player since poor Herschel Walker was a Cowboy.
The failure to treat Faulk like the special player he is cost the Redskins early and often against the Colts. The wake-up call came in the second quarter, on a play in which LB Ken Harvey was ludicrously assigned to cover the Colts’ Wunderkind man-to-man. Faulk gracefully pulled away from the overmatched Harvey and caught an 85-yard touchdown pass from Jim Harbaugh, at which point Lynn ingeniously detected that stopping Faulk should be priority No. 1.
The Marshall plan the Redskins put in following the bomb to Faulk paid quick dividends. After giving up a total of 70 yards on Faulk’s first nine rushing attempts, Washington defenders allowed him just 16 yards on his next 13, and gang-tackled him at or behind the line of scrimmage on subsequent screens. And when the Colts countered that strategy by lining up their star rookie as a wide out, Tom Carter or Darrell Green was opposite him, not a linebacker. With Faulk essentially removed, the Colts’ offense, a unit that had racked up 229 yards on its first three drives of the game, totaled minus 11 yards on its next three.
By kickoff on Sunday, Lynn will have had three weeks to figure out how to stop Charlie Garner.