Seconds after his feeble Hail Mary pass fell to the RFK Stadium turf to end the Redskins/Eagles game, Heath Shuler strolled to midfield, dropped to a knee, and prayed. The young, rich, and god-awful quarterback’s prayer probably went something like this: “Please stop that fat drunk standing in wait above the locker-room runway from flipping me off with both chubby hands and repeatedly screaming, ‘You suck!’” Alas, Heath didn’t deliver, and neither did the man upstairs.

Maybe the offensive boo-bird—in what was a very vocal flock—wasn’t struck silent because his wrathful words rang so true: Heath does suck, no matter what Norv Turner, a nude emperor if there ever was one, keeps telling the press. Shuler went into the game with the lowest rating of any starting quarterback in the NFL and, despite the custom-tailored prevent offense Turner had installed, the Err Apparent worsened it. After the contest, the coach had the gonads to announce, “I saw progress in Heath today.” Progress toward what? Unemployment? The popular appeal of Susan Smith? Turner’s postgame cant was further off the mark than Shuler’s tosses.

Sadly, Heath’s latest Heathlike performance came during a week when it appeared deliverance, for both the beleaguered player and his not-beleaguered-enough mentor, might be on the way. Not from above, however—from Silicon Valley. An eerie and seemingly positive omen arrived at Redskin Park just days before the Philly game in the form of baseball caps bearing the logo of Digital Pictures, a California software company headed by former Washington Post reporter Tom Zito. Turns out that the firm had just released “Quarterback Attack,” a high-dollar, highest-tech video game that its progenitor describes as a “professional quarterback simulator.” Shuler hasn’t actually simulated a professional QB since he began playing for pay, so the interactive CD-ROM product may serve as more than amusement for him.

Digital Pictures spent more than $2 million to produce Quarterback Attack, and the first reaction non-computerheads will have to the game is, “This ain’t Pong!” All the game’s “on-field” graphics are produced through digitally manipulated live-action video, which is seen from a quarterback’s-eye view—think back to the Helmet Cam that made World League TV broadcasts so watchable. The game is especially appealing to Redskins followers, since the home team is decked out in burgundy and gold. (According to the company, the colors used in the game, which isn’t licensed by NFL Properties, were chosen “because they looked good,” and any similarity to the Redskins—Zito’s connection to the town notwithstanding—is coincidental.)

After calling a play and taking the center snap, Quarterback Attack players must decipher, in a matter of mere seconds, scads of information about the opposition before deciding where to throw the ball. Such as: Is it a 3-4 defense or a 4-3? Are the defensive backs playing man-to-man or zone? If zone, two-deep or three-deep? Are they showing blitz? Who’s double-covered? Take too long analyzing the opponent’s movements, as Shuler so often does, and you’ll be hit with a delay-of-game penalty or sacked. Misread what’s going on downfield, as Shuler so often does, and your pass will sail off the mark or be picked off. Throw an interception, as Shuler so often does, and the cyberfans will turn on you like overbred Dobermans. For those who—like Shuler—aren’t scared straight by mere booing, turnovers also incite a hostile rant from the coach, played by former Chicago Bear Iron Mike Ditka. Much of the verbal abuse uttered during Quarterback Attack, taken from tirades Ditka used in his days as a real-life coach, could come rightly from Norv Turner: “Are you ready to show what a No. 1 pick can do?” “Do we have a third-stringer?” “Now’s not the time to choke!” If Turner reacted to his QBs’ miscues as passionately as the digital Ditka does, local fans might start believing he’s bothered by the team’s incompetence.

And if Shuler spent less time whining about not playing and more time toiling with Quarterback Attack during his extended stint as a bench-warmer, maybe he would have been better prepared and at least semiproductive when the coach ordered him to supplant Gus Frerotte.

“Football is a very complex game, and what we came up with is a very complex game, too,” gloated Joe Vierra, producer of Quarterback Attack. “The quarterbacks who are successful in pro football are the guys who can make the right decisions in very pressurized situations. And the only way to get better at making the right reads is by either playing or doing your homework. This is a great way to do your homework.”

According to Vierra, when Ditka first saw the finished product, he advised the company that it had more than a kids’ game on its hands. The product was suited, Ditka said, for use as a training device for quarterbacks at any level. To hype Quarterback Attack’s utility as an instructional tool, Digital Pictures is now offering it to any desiring college or pro-football team, free of charge. (The game carries a suggested list price of $39.)

As a devoted follower of professional football—the Raiders are his lifelong faves—Vierra is well aware of the Redskins current quarterbacking woes. “Maybe Washington could use Quarterback Attack more than other teams right now,” he laughed.

He didn’t mean only the quarterbacks, suggesting that Shuler’s increasingly vocal detractors would likely temper their vitriolic outbursts after repeated exposure to the video game.

“If nothing else, this shows how hard it is to play quarterback,” he said. “There’s a lot more going on inside a quarterback’s head than they ever get credit for. I went into this project with an incredible amount of respect for the position, but now I’ve got even more. You can’t help but appreciate how difficult all the decision-making is.”

Shuler has certainly made the job look tougher than any other Redskins quarterback in recent memory. After the Eagles loss, he spent an overwhelming portion of the postgame press conference childishly sniveling about the slings and arrows the fans at RFK have lobbed his way in recent weeks. Shuler’s comments were so pitiful that Channel 7’s muscle-bound sportscaster Rennie Knott threw journalistic detachment out the door and embraced the woeful player as he stepped from the podium.

“I can’t buy muzzles for 55,000 people!” Shuler whimpered. The remark caused reporters less sympathetic than Knott to think: Of course you can, Heath! $19.6 million, remember? Do the math! Carry the one!

Of course, a cheaper albeit less certain means of quieting the masses would be to take Digital Pictures up on their gracious offer. According to the company, the Redskins have yet to call for a free copy of Quarterback Attack.—Dave McKenna

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