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Charley Casserly wasn’t walking alone Sunday. It was darn near impossible for a passer-by not to notice that the Redskins’ beleaguered general manager chose a real-life man of the cloth to escort him from RFK Stadium’s upper concourse down to the sun-soaked field 90 minutes prior to his team’s season opener against the Arizona Cardinals. The game that followed might have led someone to suspect the pastor held up his end of whatever pact he and Casserly struck during their stroll.
Maybe Casserly’s clergymate didn’t specifically ask the man upstairs for the souplex that Cardinals’ defensive end Clyde Simmons put on quarterback Heath Shuler late in the first half, which separated the quarterback from his shoulder and the Redskins from Shuler. Divine intervention or not, Shuler’s injury surely made Casserly’s life a lot less stressful than it would otherwise have been.
Up until he got creamed, Shuler was his shaky and indecisive and just-plain-awful self. The prettiest thing Shuler has thrown as a Redskin came during Sunday’s game, but it was a block, not a pass; on what was no doubt the most extravagant sweep in Redskins history, Shuler, last year’s overpriced draftee ($19.6 million), gamely led the interference for this year’s model, rookie Michael Westbrook ($17 million), during the highly touted wideout’s nifty 58-yard touchdown run.
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Gadget plays like the Westbrook reverse that worked so well during the opening moments of the Cardinals game contrasted greatly with Coach Norv Turner’s preseason play selection. During the exhibition games, when Shuler was in at quarterback, the Skins ran a Jesse Helms offense. “Conservative” doesn’t really begin to describe it—draw plays were the rule on third and longs. Shuler’s shortcomings limit Turner’s play-calling hand; the quarterback has so far proven he can find a lost old lady a ride home from the airport, but not that he can locate a wide open back in the flat.
The on-field introductions before the Cardinals game showed that the team fully intended to coddle Shuler as long as possible. Rather than present the entire offensive or defensive unit to the crowd per usual, marquee Redskins from both sides of the line were called to midfield. But Shuler, though clearly the costliest marquee there is, wasn’t among the recognized bunch. Team brass must have feared boos would cascade downward from the disgruntled masses, fans who are up to here with Shuler’s incessant floundering.
Unfortunately for Shuler, management couldn’t protect him after kickoff. And even though the Redskins had a slim lead when he was injured, there was nothing to be excited about. All the thrills and points the offense delivered in the first quarter were attributable to two well-executed reverses. By the second quarter, gimmickery had given way to tedium and ineptitude à la 1994. Before his final drive of the afternoon, Shuler tallied just nine yards passing. The consensus among understandably pessimistic RFK attendees was that had Shuler not been extricated, the Redskins would have inevitably lost, just as they did twice to the Cardinals last year. (Total margin of victory in the two games: five points.)
And, had they gone down with Shuler as the goat, Casserly might have become a sacrificial lamb for owner Jack Kent Cooke: Earlier on Sunday, Trent Dilfer, the quarterback whom the Redskins bypassed to get Shuler in last year’s draft, led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a huge upset win over Philadelphia.
But thanks to Simmons’ hearty takedown of Shuler right around the two-minute warning, Casserly is off the hook. The RFK Stadium crowd didn’t really boo Shuler as he was helped off the field after the big hit, but it wasn’t hard to decipher the subtext of the mere smattering of applause he got. Likewise for the excited roar that came from the stands as Gus Frerotte jogged into the huddle.
For fans and Casserly, it’s the best of both worlds: The lesser paid, and by all appearances, far more proficient quarterback, was in, satisfying fan lust without having to overtly bench the Err Apparent. After his shoulder heals, Shuler will be put behind glass that will be broken only in the case of extremely dire emergency. But the injury scenario is certainly likely in today’s NFL: Shuler’s displacement was but one of 11 such QB substitutions that took place throughout the league on Sunday.
There was good news for Casserly beyond the timely Shuler injury. Vikings castoff Terry Allen, behind a line that hasn’t run-blocked in years, picked up an astonishing 131 yards, more than any running back has accrued against a Buddy Ball defense since 1989. Safeties Stanley Richard and James Washington, both recent Casserly acquisitions, delivered more highlight-reel hits in one game than Redskins defenders did all last year. Washington’s body slam of Ryan Terry, which sent the rookie kick-returner crashing over a Gatorade table on the sideline, was definitely a keeper. And new kicker Eddie Murray, who replaced longtime liability Chip Lohmiller during training camp, reintroduced “chip shot” into the Redskins’ playbook.
Frerotte, as we now know, not only protected the slim lead he’d inherited, but extended it and never looked back. He threw two touchdown passes that wouldn’t, or couldn’t, have been thrown by Shuler. And though Frerotte is just as green in terms of NFL experience as Shuler, he made it all look very easy.
Perhaps you had to be there, but after Gus took over, it seemed like the home team and its fans experienced a massive mood swing. The offense killed the last few minutes of the clock with a Riggo drill, for chrissakes, while the crowd derided the NFL’s most comfortable villain, opposing Coach Buddy Ryan, with choruses of “Buh-deeee, Buh-deeee.” That sort of swagger hadn’t been seen around these parts since, well, since the Redskins crushed the Cowboys on opening day two years ago in ex-Coach Richie Petitbon’s debut.
Of course, that Cowboys game was the lone bright spot in the terribly short and terribly dismal Petitbon era. But Turner wasn’t about to let the dark side of the team’s recent past spoil his brightest afternoon here yet. After all, the victory over the Cardinals gave Turner his first win at RFK since 1991, when he was an assistant with Dallas.
“Oh, well, it’s just fun to win,” Turner smirked after being asked if the triumph was any more special since it came on home turf. “I don’t care if we play down at the Giant parking lot.”