By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 14, 2006
Each Monday afternoon, Washington Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell and first-year quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor head to the deserted practice fields at Redskins Park to review the meticulous footwork of the Redskins' new offense, refining every precise pivot and swivel of the hips. For months they have met alone on a day when the team's practice facility is largely empty. Just a player, a coach, a football, a massive playbook and a vast potential they hope to fulfill.
After watching from the sideline as a rookie in 2005, Campbell, 24, is positioned to push for the backup job behind veteran Mark Brunell this season, and, should Brunell get injured, perhaps make his NFL debut.
As the Redskins begin their offseason workouts this week, culminating in next month's minicamp, all eyes will be on Campbell. The Redskins made a hefty investment to acquire Campbell last year, trading three picks, including a first rounder, to make him the 25th selection overall in the NFL draft. Campbell has approached this offseason by handcuffing himself to the playbook, sequestering himself in the film room and absorbing as much information from coaches and teammates as possible.
Getting Campbell ready to contribute in 2006 will not be easy. For the sixth straight year -- dating from his freshman season at Auburn -- he is being required to learn a new offense. He is working with his sixth quarterbacks coach and, with the hiring of Al Saunders from the Kansas City Chiefs in January, his sixth offensive coordinator. While the terminology of Coach Joe Gibbs's and Saunders's offenses are similar, the requirements of the quarterbacks and receivers this season will be quite different.
The "Mondays with Billy" sessions are but one part of Campbell's development. Campbell has had individual tutoring from Saunders as well, he throws to receivers informally whenever possible and has been at Redskins Park religiously since the season ended in January. He returned home to Mississippi for just two weeks before heading back to Loudoun County.
Most nights are spent poring over plays and formations, and Campbell is usually at Redskins Park from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at least four days a week. The Redskins' growing playbook, which spans the 6-foot-4 quarterback's prodigious forearm, is his constant fashion accessory.
"We'll go out to get a bite to eat a lot, because we don't cook, but Jason spends most of his time in that playbook," said cornerback Carlos Rogers, Campbell's teammate at Auburn who lives two houses from him now. "All that guy does is go home after his workout and study. He puts in serious hours, but they've got a new offense and the quarterbacks are the leaders of the offense, so he has to put in his time. Jason's a smart guy, and he knows how hard he has to work."
Gibbs, Saunders and Lazor admit that it is impossible to determine when Campbell will master the offense and merit regular playing time, but the offseason workouts and preseason will provide a clue about his development. Gibbs has said that Campbell will receive ample playing time in exhibition games, and his performance then will be the best indicator of where he stands. The Redskins signed quarterback Todd Collins, a longtime Saunders disciple who understands the new offense, should Campbell fail to secure the backup position. But Gibbs says he remains upbeat about Campbell's potential.
"He's done it all through high school and done it all in college, and we think he's going to do it all up here," Gibbs said. "I think it's a process for a young guy to come along, and I think he knows now, last year was one set of circumstances where you know you're probably not going to play, and this year he knows it's a different deal. He's going to be getting a lot of focus, a lot of attention and a lot of playing time, and we're excited about getting him in there and letting him go to work."
Before then, however, Campbell must once again learn a new offense. "I can't imagine how tough that is for a player," said Lazor, who was a quarterback at Cornell and coached the position in college. "For Jason to walk in this building with a smile on his face says a lot about his disposition, because some days I'm sure he's thinking, 'Here we go again.' "
Indeed, this is a chore Campbell knows all too well.
"Sometimes I think about all the things I overcame to get to this point -- all the different changes and offenses -- and you always wonder how much better do you think you could be if you were just in one offense," Campbell said. "But everything happens for a reason, and we're glad to have Coach Saunders. He's a great coach, and I think once I learn his whole offense I'll have the opportunity to be a great quarterback here."
To do so, Campbell must become fluent in all of Saunders's plays and be able to execute them with speed, authority and dexterity. Saunders asks his quarterbacks to break the huddle quickly, take short drop-backs on pass plays, read the defense quickly to determine who is open and then pass the ball to a spot, rather than to a receiver's hands. The quarterback must throw the ball before the receiver's cut in his route, requiring precise timing.
"There's no question about what Jason can do with his arm," wide receiver Santana Moss said. "But grasping this offense, and knowing where he needs to be with the ball and when it has to be there, that's going to be his issue. And once he gets that, he should be all right."
Saunders said the repeated coaching changes Campbell has endured have deprived him of developing "a real solid base with which to work from in a fundamental and technique standpoint." He must smooth those rough edges while also trying to digest the team's expansive playbook.
"The quarterbacks that have played in this system have had a very high football aptitude," Saunders said. "They have to be bright guys with a great ability to retain and gather information, because this offense builds and builds and builds, and part of the success we've had on offense is the versatility and volume we have. We go into a game with 250, 300 plays, and that changes every single week and multiplies itself through the course of a year. It's a lot of timing. It's rhythm. The game is played at a very, very, fast, upbeat tempo, and all of those things begin with the quarterback."
Brunell, 35, is adjusting as well, but he has 147 games of regular season experience and deep knowledge to draw from. Collins, 34, is a Saunders favorite even though he has made just 17 starts since 1995. "Todd is as good a technician as there is in this passing game," Saunders said. "He just hasn't had a chance to play because [Chiefs Pro Bowl starter] Trent [Green] was always healthy."
Collins and Campbell are paired together in drills -- they are right-handed while Brunell is a lefty -- so Campbell can learn from the veteran. Campbell also can turn to Collins with questions about the offense, and about the preparation necessary to be a No. 2 quarterback. Should Campbell get a chance to play this season, he said he aims to make the most of it. The results may be slow to come at first, he said, but over time -- and with the luxury of continuity in one offense -- Campbell is confident that he will succeed.
"Everyone has their ups and downs," Campbell said. "If you think about Peyton [Manning], when he started he was 3-13 and took a lot of lumps and lot of licks in the mouth, and now you look at him and he's probably the best quarterback in the NFL. So guys take their lumps early in the careers, but it all prepares you for the future. You've got to take it in stride and you've got to understand that you're going to make good plays and bad plays, but you're always learning and in the process of getting better."