When the time came for Connor Shaw to start his first NFL game, he didn’t have time to be nervous. The former South Carolina quarterback was too busy being nervous about his first real pro practice.
Until the week of his only professional start, Shaw served as the Cleveland Browns third-team, practice-squad quarterback. That meant sitting in the meeting room alongside starter Brian Hoyer and backup Johnny Manziel but being jettisoned to run the scout team during practice and not suiting up for games on Sundays.
That changed, coincidentally, on a trip to the Carolinas, when Hoyer and Manziel were injured in a game against the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte.
“I knew on the plane back that they were going to at least bump me up (to the active roster) because I knew Johnny wasn’t going to play the next week,” Shaw said. “Brian called me the next morning and gave me the heads up. He said he was going to do everything he could to try to play, but for me to prepare like I was going to start, just in case.”
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For Shaw, that meant his first practice reps with the Browns’ starters.
“I was so anxious about the practices day by day because I hadn’t taken any reps with the ones through OTAs or camp or anything, so I was really anxious about (the game),” he said. “I just wanted to prove that I could start and be efficient just in practice. I don’t really think it sunk in until I walked out there for the first snap that I was playing the Baltimore Ravens in Baltimore in an NFL game.”
The game was played Dec. 28, and the Browns lost 20-10 to finish the season 7-9.
“Got the game plan down and just played,” Shaw said. “I have been doing it for a long time, and I really didn’t look at it like I was playing in an NFL game. I just kind of thought of it as a big opportunity for me to play the game of football. I had a lot of fun doing it. I wish I could have pulled it out, but it was a great time.”
Shaw was 14-of-28 passing for 177 yards, one interception and no touchdowns. He rushed seven times for 9 yards against the Ravens.
“Yeah, I saw a little bit of that game,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said. “He did well. I think he can play better. I think he will tell you he can play a lot better, but for his first time out, he did pretty well.”
Shaw played well enough to prove something to himself and his teammates.
“I definitely can improve on it, but for my first start it was pretty solid,” he said. “I think I always had in the back of my head that I could play in this league, but you never really know until you play. After that first drive when we marched down there and I had a couple of big plays and we fumbled, I kind of took the mindset the rest of the game, ‘OK, I can move it on this team, I can play in this league.’ ”
“He went out there and made some plays for this football team,” veteran Cleveland defensive back Donte Whitner told ClevelandBrowns.com. “He kept his mouth closed and he worked all year. He came out here and gave us a fighting chance.”
Shaw signed a three-year deal before his start, and the game against the Ravens counted as the first year of the deal. He is signed for 2015 at $435,000 and 2016 at $525,000, but he realizes that very little in the NFL, especially the money, is guaranteed.
“It’s nice having a little more stability, but you never know in this game,” he said. “Nothing is really guaranteed. I have witnessed that firsthand with other people coming in and out, so I’ll just take it day by day like I have been the past year.”
He also won’t spend time thinking about next season’s quarterback depth chart. Hoyer will be a free agent this offseason, but the Browns have expressed interest in re-signing him, and Manziel will be back and healthy. If both players return to the roster, they presumably would return to the top two spots in the rotation, but there’s no sense worrying about that in January, Shaw said. Browns offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains left the team Thursday.
“I don’t have a clue about that stuff,” Shaw said. “I am not going to focus on anything but myself and what I need to do to get better.”
Shaw, wife Molly and daughter Mila will make their offseason home in Greenville. He plans to visit Columbia before returning to Cleveland in April for the Browns’ Organized Team Activities.
“I definitely want to keep my long-term home back in the South,” Shaw said.