It has become almost an annual tradition for fans and draft gurus alike to rave about the steals each team finds in the middle of the NFL draft; those players that somehow slipped through the cracks and are going to be starters and pro bowlers for their respective teams. It is also an annual tradition for those same fans to end up disappointed when reality sets in and they realize that there was a reason the player was not drafted in the first round.
Sometimes, however, special players come along that really do slip through the cracks and fulfil those dreams of every fan of the team. Jets fans have to look no further than former Tight End Mickey Shuler to find that special player that rewrote the history books at his respective position.
Shuler, a 3rd round draft pick out of Penn State, is arguably the greatest third round pick in the history of the Jets organization, and the best offensive talent the team ever selected in that round. He was the type of player that was easy for the fans to embrace. Fans love to cheer for the player that might not be the most physically gifted athlete but gives 110% each and every week for the team, and nobody gave any more than Mickey Shuler gave the New York Jets. The fans watched Shuler grow from a part time player into a star who became one of the endearing names synonymous with eighties Jets football.
Shuler's journey began in 1978 when he was expected to be the blocking complement to starter Jerome Barkum, more of a receiver than blocker. Shuler's first action came in week 1 against the hated Miami Dolphins. His first catch as a pro came in the second quarter of that game--- a 1 yard touchdown pass from QB Richard Todd, his first of 3 scores as a rookie.
Though Shuler was used sparingly in the passing game, he was gaining the attention of then offensive coordinator Joe Walton for his all around ability to play the position. In 1979, with Barkum forced to the sidelines, Shuler began to show off his potential as a receiver, snagging 189 yards at 21 yards per reception over a 4 game stretch. Shuler was slowly becoming the type of player that every winning team desires.
Shuler’s role continued to grow in the offense and was becoming the preferred option at Tight End in 1980. Head Coach Walt Michaels considered Shuler one of his offensive centerpieces and thought that he, along with WR's Wesley Walker and Lam Jones, would make the Jets "just about unstoppable in the air".
While Jones proved to be a bust, Shuler set a career high with 22 receptions. Shuler was about to make that leap to the next level before a separated shoulder suffered in a preseason game saw him miss almost the entire 1981 season. He returned for a memorable playoff performance where he hauled in 116 yards in a furious attempt at a comeback against the Buffalo Bills that fell just short in the final seconds of the game.
By 1984 Shuler had become one of the best players at the position in the entire NFL. Shuler shattered team records and led the Jets in receptions and yards in 1984 and 1985, while maintaining his status as an excellent blocker on the line. He was credited with a reception in 86 consecutive games during the mid eighties and was named to the Pro Bowl in 1986 and 1988. Perhaps his greatest game came in a 62-28 victory against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers where he hauled in 3 touchdowns from starter Ken O'Brien. During that special 5 year stretch, Shuler caught 326 passes for 3,575 yards and scored 25 touchdowns, numbers that would have been even higher if not for the strike shortened 1987 season.
Shuler’s contributions to the team went well beyond the field of play. His work ethic was unparalleled at the time. Shuler was one of the first players to understand how the NFL was evolving into a much more complex game and was a firm believer in using video to prepare for his opponents, taking tapes home at night for study sessions. In an era where the off season was nothing like it is today, with most players completely abandoning football for months, Shuler was one of the most dedicated players, often showing up at the facilities by 7AM before heading off to his offseason job. His incredible efforts were summed up by former offensive coordinator Rich Kotitie in 1988:
He'd come in and do some work, talk to me, and then go over to the company he owns and put in a full day. If you have something you want to criticize him about, you start to say it and before you finish he says: "I know. I should have done this."
Shuler was one of the unquestioned leaders of the Jets in the mid 1980’s and one of the few players that seemed to always say the right things week in and week out. He constantly fielded questions from the media during both the good times and bad, often finding himself in the middle of some very tenuous situations. Always a strong supporter of a young O'Brien and constantly praising him in the media, Shuler was the man who showed that the team still believed in Kenny, but also understood why he was benched by Walton, who was now head coach.
This is a team with a lot of players who pull together and we all realize this is our last chance… Pat's (Ryan) personality may be just what we need… "He's a gung-ho, go-get-'em guy who has charisma. If we need to give Kenny a rest, I can't think of a better guy to bring in
It was as good a job as could be expected and by the next summer, while O'Brien held out for a new contract, Shuler was helping O'Brien keep in shape by catching passes from him. Shuler was a team leader that wanted to win and he understood that meant going that extra mile to help your teammates.
Even bigger was his role in bringing unity back to the team after a very bitter players strike in 1987 that saw numerous Jets and friends of his cross the picket line. The 1987 team ended the season hating one another and their coaching staff. Shuler took the high road and took it upon himself to remain in constant communication with Walton and with every player on the team to get them all on the same page. It was that extra effort that helped him earn his spot as a team captain in 1988.
Shuler embraced that role as a leader and tried to demand excellence from his teammates. He did his best to convey the importance of every practice, every game, and every coach to the players, both young and old alike. It was in 1988, while watching the Redskins play the Broncos in the Super Bowl that Shuler realized these teams were not much better than the Jets, but that they were more confident and worked harder. He felt that he had to stand up in front of his team that spring and make them know that the way they played the previous season was unacceptable, telling them getting to that next level was "about paying the price, about playing for 60 minutes". He explained to the young players about how hard it was to be successful in the NFL and how they will deal with adversity they never encountered before.
Shuler did not just talk the talk, but walked the walk that year. Shuler’s year was filled with highlights that included a 152 yard game against the Kansas City Chiefs and a 91 yard, 2 touchdown performance that helped spoil Dan Marino’s 5 touchdown passes. He was determined to lead by example and did just that, earning his second trip to the Pro Bowl and leading all Tight Ends in receptions.
While the Jets did not make the playoffs that year, it was the first year in a long time where the Jets, notorious quitters, did not pack it in and give up in December. The team finished 3-1 down the stretch to end the year with a winning record and defeated the New York Giants in the season finale, knocking the favored Giants out of the playoffs.
Unfortunately the team was unable to capitalize on the momentum and the wheels fell off in 1989. Shuler's season was derailed by multiple injuries, including a broken hand, which allowed him to play in only 7 games.
With Bruce Coslet brought in as head coach in 1990, changes were made and late in the summer Shuler was released by the Jets. Shuler would go on to finish his career with the Philadelphia Eagles, never realizing his dream of playing in the Super Bowl, which he would state was the only regret he ever had in his playing career.
Since parting ways with number 82, the Jets have tried time and time again to find the next Mickey Shuler, drafting 10 Tights Ends, including four in the first round. None have been able to duplicate the heart and skill of that soft-spoken 3rd round draft pick.
Despite missing out on his Super Bowl dream there should be no regret for the great Jets Tight End. Mickey Shuler’s career stands head and shoulders above the rest. He remains one of the most cherished and decorated Jets in the history of the organization, having more receptions and yards than any other Tight End in franchise history, ranking 5th all time in receptions, and being named a member of the Jets All Time Team. He is the standard by which all future Jets Tight Ends will be judged and universally recognized as the greatest Jets Tight End in their 40 plus years of history.
The readers of The Jets Blog are proud to recognize Mickey Shuler’s contributions to the New York Jets and add to his accolades by forever enshrining him in the TJB Hall of Fame. Congratulations, Mickey!