Moment of Glory: Two men started at QB in their only NFL game. Another chance eluded them both

(Yahoo Sports graphic by Paul Rosales)
(Yahoo Sports graphic by Paul Rosales)

Not every NFL player gets to play 20 years like Tom Brady. Most won’t play five seasons. But for a select few, they’ll have one season, game or play that is truly historic. This offseason, we’ll highlight those special NFL performances in our “Moment of Glory” series.

(Yahoo Sports graphic by Paul Rosales)(Yahoo Sports graphic by Paul Rosales)
(Yahoo Sports graphic by Paul Rosales)

Connor Shaw remembers most of the details of Dec. 28, 2014, but an unexpected one sticks out.

Shaw was picked to start at quarterback for the Cleveland Browns in the season finale. It was his NFL debut. And he distinctly recalls tying his tie and looking in the mirror before leaving to the stadium.

“It was one of those two-second moments that will always be in my memory,” Shaw said. “Like, ‘Holy s—, I’m a starting quarterback in the NFL.’”

Shaw is part of a weird and very short list in NFL history. He is one of two players — not counting a few in the 1920s or the 1987 strike-shortened season with replacement players — to start an NFL game at quarterback and have that be the only NFL game of his career, according to Pro Football Reference. The other such player was Will Cureton, also with the Cleveland Browns, in 1975.

“Leave it to the Browns to have both guys,” Shaw said with a laugh.

It’s a tough club to make, if you think about it. You have to be good (and lucky) enough to get a start at the most important position in sports, but for some reason never get another snap in any other NFL game.

Shaw and Cureton had their one shot come and go for different reasons.

Will Cureton’s start didn’t go well

Cureton’s one start as an NFL quarterback was a long shot for many reasons.

He came from small Whitewright, Texas, with a population of less than 2,000. He was a good college player but for East Texas State University, an NAIA school (now named Texas A&M University-Commerce). He went undrafted.

The 1974 preseason gave him a lucky break. Veteran players walked out before the preseason in a labor dispute, and Cureton started the first three preseason games. He showed enough to make the roster.

Cureton didn’t play in 1974, and 1975 started the same way. That is, until coach Forrest Gregg’s first Browns team fell to 0-7. Normal starter Mike Phipps was hurt. Fellow quarterback Brian Sipe was in the doghouse. Cureton said when the team got back from its seventh straight loss at Baltimore, Gregg told him at the airport he’d be starting the next week.

“At this point, we have to play everybody we’ve got,” Gregg said then, according to a UPI story. “We’ve got to see if they’re capable of playing in this league.”

This was the situation Cureton faced: a road game against a blitz-happy Lions defense with a team that was already 0-7. Not ideal. Cureton also was so focused on playing well that he put in a lot of extra practice with his receivers, and his arm was a little worn down by the time Sunday came around.

“You think about all of that,” Cureton said.

The game didn’t go well. Cureton went 10-of-32 for 95 yards. With the Browns trailing 14-3 in the fourth quarter, he was under pressure and threw a wild pass that was intercepted by Ben Davis and returned for a touchdown. He did throw a 12-yard touchdown to Oscar Roan later in the fourth quarter.

“Like I tell people, I had two touchdown passes that day,” joked Cureton, now the president of Richman Southwest in Dallas, a residential real estate company.

Phipps was back the next week. Cureton said he learned a lot from his first NFL experience and was hopeful to do better with another chance, but he didn’t play again that season. He was cut by the Browns the following July and never made it on another NFL roster. He had already started a business career during the offseasons his first couple NFL years, and transitioned to that world.

“One thing I probably regret is I should have done whatever it took to catch on with another team,” Cureton said.

Even if he has some regrets, Cureton said he doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about what could have happened in his football career more than 40 years ago.

“All in all, for a small-town Texas kid to have that experience, it was wonderful,” Cureton said.

Connor Shaw’s lone start

Shaw didn’t fade away because his start didn’t warrant another look. Given the circumstances, he wasn’t bad.

Shaw went undrafted out of South Carolina, but played well in the 2014 preseason and got a spot on the practice squad. He got a start in the final game because Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel were hurt.

Shaw remembers many details of the game immediately. He describes a long pass down the seam to tight end Jordan Cameron and when you watch a replay of the game, his memory is spot on. The Browns hung in against a good Ravens team needing a win to make the playoffs, even leading seven minutes into the fourth quarter.

“And if you’re Cleveland, probably pretty happy with what Shaw has done as he was just elevated off the practice squad yesterday,” CBS play-by-play man Kevin Harlan said on the telecast as the game went to halftime.

“It’s amazing, a tight game here against a team that is 9-6 and needs to win to advance to the postseason,” color analyst Rich Gannon said.  

The Ravens ended up wearing down the Browns and won 20-10, advancing to the playoffs. Shaw was 14-of-28 for 177 yards, not great but impressive enough given the situation. Teammate Joe Thomas praised him, saying “he’s a quarterback who belongs in the NFL.” Shaw felt the same way.

“I proved that I belonged in the NFL,” Shaw said. “I felt, I can be a quarterback in this league and for the Cleveland Browns.”

At very least, Shaw looked like he could be an NFL backup for many years. Then in the 2015 preseason, he tore ligaments in his thumb and needed surgery. He missed the season and was cut by Cleveland the next offseason. The Bears picked him up and in the preseason, Shaw said he was playing “probably the best football I played.” But he broke his tibia and fibula on a late hit that he felt at the time was a cheap shot. That led to another lost season, and Shaw admitted he was never the same after the graphic injury. His mobility was compromised. A hamstring injury in the 2017 preseason was the final blow. He was released again.

One solid regular-season start, then three straight preseason injuries. That’s a lot of bad luck and given his trajectory after the 2014 season, it’s easy to think about what might have been.

“I look at it both ways. I’m very thankful for the opportunity I had, a chance to start in the NFL,” Shaw said. “But I’m a competitor like anyone else. You get one shot and you want more of it.”

Quarterback Connor Shaw of the Cleveland Browns passes against the Baltimore Ravens on Dec. 28, 2014. (Photo by Larry French/Getty Images)Quarterback Connor Shaw of the Cleveland Browns passes against the Baltimore Ravens on Dec. 28, 2014. (Photo by Larry French/Getty Images)
Quarterback Connor Shaw of the Cleveland Browns passes against the Baltimore Ravens on Dec. 28, 2014. (Photo by Larry French/Getty Images)

What happened to Cureton and Shaw?

There will be some regret when you start at quarterback in your NFL debut and never get another chance. But both members of the weird “one game/one QB start” club have done well for themselves.

Cureton had a start on his post-football career when he was still in the NFL. He had an accounting degree and used it during the offseason. He said his experience in the competitive world of football has served him well in business.

Shaw briefly tried coaching after his NFL career was done, spent a couple years in the business world and this January he landed back at South Carolina as its director of player development, helping players on career development, mental health, financial literacy and life skills, according to his bio. His unusual NFL journey can help him guide the South Carolina players he’s working with, most of whom won’t be NFL stars.

“It’s not going to last forever,” Shaw said. “I can relate to what they’re going through.”

Being one-and-done as an NFL quarterback still creeps into their minds here and there. Cureton said he still has a recurring nightmare, all these years later, that he has been invited to Browns training camp for another shot but then realizes he hasn’t worked out all summer.

“I had something to fall back on,” Cureton said. “But it has always haunted me that I didn’t have two or three years to show what I could have done.”

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