Jon Gruden couldn’t have sound prouder when he talked about Connor Shaw. Beaming while rattling off Shaw’s undefeated home record, his 24-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio and his tutelage under Steve Spurrier, Gruden’s drawl accentuated his excitement about the undrafted Gamecock under center for the Browns. The host of Jon Gruden’s QB Camp knows a talented gunslinger when he sees one, and even though Shaw wasn’t invited to an episode of QB Camp this year, Gruden was glowing. His excitement, as we would see this past Monday night, was for a good reason.
Completing eight of his nine passes for 123 yards and a touchdown, Shaw showed us exactly what made him so special as an athlete and as a leader at USC: throwing bullets while scrambling, kicking up the speed for a two-minute drill, a delivering a hail mary worthy of any NFL Films montage. Sure, it took a couple lucky bounces into the hands of tight end Emmanuel Ogbuehi, but that’s the kind of magic the Browns have been lacking for so many decades, and it’s the kind of bravery the Browns have lacked in a leader for just as long.
I watched the first few minutes of the Monday Night Football game, my morbid curiosity of Johnny Football getting the best of me. I faded in and out, but when I got the text from Gamecock Cereal Co-EIC Jeff Tyner of “SHAW IS IN” (yes, with all-caps), I couldn’t grab my remote quick enough.
Seeing Shaw in an NFL uniform and playing at an NFL level put a smile on my face. I was in near-disbelief, the same way I felt about watching him at South Carolina during that first season of providing relief for ne’er-do-well rapscallion Stephen Garcia. Here was this bald-headed, scrawny kid with happy feet and with a never-say-die attitude who would later earn the broken bones and sprains on his body to prove it.
So why doesn’t he get the same opportunities as Brian Hoyer or Johnny Manziel? Is the greatest quarterback to ever come out of an SEC school, which he helped raise to an elite level, so boring to discuss on ESPN? Are we still living in a time when quarterbacks who like to run and who aren’t taller than 6’3” have no home in the NFL? Because the last time I checked, ol’ Johnny Football checks off both of those with flying colors. Maybe that’s why my heart was racing last night. Because there’s a part of me that believes this might be one of the few chances he’ll get with the Browns.
If there’s one thing that stuck out about Shaw’s game (aside from being without a single middle finger present), it was his ability to lead and create a personality for the whole team on his own, and lead them to… something. Something real. Something that fans can latch onto. Having lived in Ohio for four years, I can tell you the Browns psychotic fandom is real, and they deserve something exciting beyond a quarterback who will keep them in the sports news cycle for all the wrong reasons. He got into the game at a point when things shouldn’t matter. Third-stringers against third-stringers, what does it matter? What matters is how he reacted, and how seriously he took it. It was clear Shaw reacted with passion, and he took it more seriously than a heart attack.
His first drive concluded in a missed field goal, but there was more than sparks apparent. His first pass, a 15-yard shot on the run to Willie Snead, was a great start, and it was very familiar for USC fans. Later in the drive, Shaw tossed one of those bad boys for 22 yards to Taylor Gabriel, getting the Browns in field goal position. This kind of efficiency was not an uncommon sight for Gamecock fans during any of Shaw’s games, but that’s also a credit to USC’s reliable running game.
But it was the second and final drive that really turned heads and illustrated the value of Connor Shaw for any team. The drive starting at Cleveland’s 18, there wasn’t a soul in the stadium that thought some third-string undrafted rookie quarterback could orchestrate a two-minute drill. Four quick completions and a scramble for six yards from Shaw later, the coach’s son tossed a beauty into the end zone, and here we are.
Maybe if the two-point conversion was good, we’d be talking about Connor Shaw as a more real threat to make the Browns roster, but who knows these days? Cleveland is virtually the opposite of South Carolina; a team trending down and clinging to the hope a party-hardy QB dishing out middle fingers or a young career clipboard holder will save them. Can Connor Shaw be the hope for another team? No matter how it turns out, there’s no doubt he’s damn well going to try.