By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 6, 2006
For Jason Campbell, being declared something of a co-backup quarterback for Mark Brunell was the first real evidence of his NFL evolution. For Todd Collins, who spent the past five years as the unquestioned top reserve passer for the Kansas City Chiefs, the unusual backup decision provided less cause for celebration over the holiday weekend.
Both players expressed some uncertainty yesterday about precisely how Coach Joe Gibbs's plan would work over 16 games but readily accepted their fate.
Campbell, who carried a clipboard in his rookie season after being selected 25th overall in the 2005 draft, knows he is closer than ever to making his first appearance in a regular season game. Campbell would start should the Washington Redskins know a week in advance that the starter would miss a game because of injury. Collins, an 11-year veteran, realizes that, as the first quarterback off the bench should Brunell get hurt in a game, a strong showing could improve his chances of getting his first start since 1997. Given their position, both quarterbacks understood the need to make the best of the unusual circumstances.
As Gibbs has said, the plan is not etched in granite, but Collins enters Monday's game against Minnesota as the No. 2 passer. "Obviously, every day and every practice and every game could change any situation, but it's the best way for us to go into the season," Gibbs said.
Al Saunders, the new associate head coach who took over Washington's offense from Gibbs in January, echoed that sentiment and said that the division of labor in practices and Collins's deeper comfort level in the Redskins' complex offense had much to do with the outcome.
Saunders gives no snaps to backup passers in practice during the season, a reality Collins, 34, lived with for five seasons under Saunders in Kansas City, but one that would cause more problems for Campbell, 24, who is learning his sixth offense in six years. Collins is adept at doing the mental preparation a backup must do -- maximizing meeting time and film work to compensate for the lack of practice. Campbell, as the "quarterback of the future," is being groomed to take over for Brunell at some point, with Collins the caretaker.
"We think Jason has improved dramatically from Day One but is still a work in progress," Saunders said. "And right now the feeling is that if something happens in the course of a game, Todd would be the guy because of the limited practice reps, because when you start the season the starting quarterback gets every single rep all the way through with the offense.
"So with Todd's experience he'll be able to go through a week without taking any reps with the unit and be able to play probably at a higher level. Now having said that, we'll keep Jason after practice every day and have him run through the offense in order to build his familiarity with what we're doing."
Under Gibbs, the Redskins traded three draft picks, including a first-round selection, to draft Campbell last year, even with Brunell and former first-round pick Patrick Ramsey still with the team. Campbell was Washington's No. 3 quarterback all of 2005, but, if given a week of practice to focus on an opponent, Gibbs said he believes Campbell could thrive.
"To me this shows tremendous trust that the coaching staff has in me, and at the same time, there's time for me to get better every day while I have the opportunity," Campbell said. "This year is a totally different situation. Last year you kind of figured you're going to be the [third quarterback] because I didn't know as much as the other guys know. This year I had the opportunity to be here since February with Coach Saunders and the opportunity to learn a lot of things under him, so you understand the game better. It slows down for you a lot, and that's a big difference."
Collins said he was "surprised" by Gibbs's decision, but stopped short of saying he was disappointed.
"Everyone wants to be the guy, and [Gibbs] had his reasons to go with the plan that he made," Collins said. "And it's not going to affect me too much in how I prepare for the games. I'm used to preparing without getting too many reps, so you go from there."
Collins said he was uncertain what, if anything, he could do to change the rotation, but hopes to "take advantage if an opportunity arises." Saunders said that any move to alter the plan or give Collins a start would be Gibbs's to make.
"That's totally up to the head football coach and how he feels about it," Saunders said. "But I think it will work its way out. It always does. You really just go from week to week in this league because anything can happen. And right now we're going into the game with Minnesota with the cards we've been dealt."
Veteran receivers and offensive linemen said the backup situation would not affect the way they practice or operate in games. The duties asked of any quarterback in this system are essentially the same, they said, with Collins's knowledge of the system giving him an initial edge. "Todd has the upper hand because he's been in the system so long," wide receiver Brandon Lloyd said. "That's kind of a no-brainer until Jason gets his experience."
In the end, the expectations would be high should either quarterback get in a game. The Redskins are hoping to build on a 10-6 record last season and their first trip to the playoffs since 1999, and know that it might take more than just Brunell to get them there, given the prevalence of injuries at that position leaguewide.
"It doesn't matter to me who's back there at quarterback," wide receiver Santana Moss said. "As long as they know what they're doing, I'm cool with it."