Monday, May 30, 2005
Second in a two-part series
AUBURN, Ala. -- Jason Campbell directed the Auburn Tigers on consecutive scoring drives to open the team's 2004 season against lowly Louisiana-Monroe, and the 80,000 Auburn fans at Jordan-Hare Stadium felt a decisive victory was under way. But late in the first half of this 31-0 victory, Campbell, the team's senior quarterback, was pressured as he dropped back to throw. A defender clipped his arm and his pass was intercepted.
The error was caused more by a breakdown along the offensive line than anything Campbell did. But as he headed for the sidelines, a portion of the home crowd booed. Freshman quarterback Brandon Cox had scored a touchdown for the Tigers on his first possession in the second quarter, and some fans thought he should take over.
Here we go again, they said. Campbell just can't get it done.
Another quarterback controversy -- the backdrop to what was now Campbell's fifth year on campus -- loomed.
It seemed unlikely that day -- only eight months ago -- that Campbell would go on to be named the Southeastern Conference player of the year and to have one of the best seasons in school history as he led Auburn to an undefeated record.
Even more remote was the idea that the Washington Redskins would select him in the first round of the NFL draft. A year ago, most scouts assumed that Campbell, 23, would not be drafted at all after three mediocre seasons running Auburn's offense, and, despite his strong senior year, many were surprised Washington took Campbell with the 25th overall pick.
But the traits Campbell exhibited during his time at Auburn, his determination and adaptability, are among the qualities that endeared him to Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs, so much so that Gibbs traded three draft picks -- including next year's No. 1 -- to Denver for the rights to grab the 6-foot-5, 223-pound quarterback.
Campbell's career at Auburn was marked by adversity. He arrived heralded as the second-best high school quarterback in the country, yet spent much of his college career rotating in and out of the lineup. Campbell played under four offensive coordinators, and had to learn four different offensive systems in his final four seasons. Only under the last, Al Borges, did he flourish.
Entering last season, many Auburn fans had concluded that Campbell was washed up. The venom against the young quarterback poured forth on talk shows, Internet message boards and letters to the editor.
"There are some absolute horror stories I could tell you, and the reason I know is I had to listen to them," Borges said. "I came in here a year ago and everybody wanted to know if Jason was going to be replaced. . . . I would go to speak all over Alabama, and wherever I went I would get the same questions every time about the quarterback, and I quickly started to realize that, man, they don't like him."
Campbell reflects on those trying times with characteristic stoicism. "I think it helped me out a lot, having the opportunity to run four different offenses, and seeing the differences in each," he said. "You know how to approach each offense now, and this [in Washington] is the fifth offense I'm learning in five years, so I'm still on the move at this point."