By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 2, 2006
Jason Campbell tries not to glance at the game summaries or dwell on the NFL highlights. He tries to avoid the obvious -- that he is the rare quarterback to be drafted in the first round yet never takes a regular season snap, while other young passers are playing regularly around the league. But this week it will be impossible for Campbell to ignore his status.
The Dallas Cowboys, suddenly resurgent behind Tony Romo, are coming to town and their approach to the quarterback position and the one Coach Joe Gibbs is taking with Campbell are in stark contrast.
Both passers had to bide their time on the sidelines, but unlike Campbell, the 25th overall pick in 2005 who has been inactive for all 25 games of his NFL career, Romo was serving as the occasional No. 2 quarterback by his second season. And with Dallas's season at a crossroads in Week 7 at home in a Monday night game, Coach Bill Parcells yanked Drew Bledsoe, one of his longtime favorites, and gave the 26-year-old quarterback his first action.
"There were some personal things involved there, and it's a difficult thing to do that," Parcells said of his quarterback change. "You don't like to do things that obviously are going to hurt somebody you like and who had done a good job for you overall, so there was that. But you've gotta do what you've gotta do sometimes, and I just thought maybe we could get a little spark to help our situation a little bit, because it certainly needed help."
Romo started the second half and threw an interception on his first pass in the loss to the New York Giants, but rallied the Cowboys for 25 fourth-quarter points in Sunday's victory over Carolina. His teammates seem energized by the change and the Cowboys are battling for the playoffs at 4-3.
At FedEx Field, fans have been screaming for Campbell to replace 36-year-old Mark Brunell, with the offense producing just 14 touchdowns in seven games. But Gibbs is not ready to make a change, and Campbell, 24, is slated to be the third quarterback again Sunday.
"I mostly try not to think about the other guys" who are starting quarterbacks at a young age, said Campbell, who starred at Auburn. "But one thing it does give you is a lot of confidence when those guys are out there doing their thing. And I feel like I could do the same thing -- go out there and play with poise and just manage the game."
The Redskins (2-5) traded up to select Campbell despite having two quarterbacks on the roster, parting with three draft picks, including a first-round selection. It was a steep price for a player who has not stepped on the field. When Campbell finally plays is Gibbs's decision; the coach is a strong believer in the value of an experienced quarterback and has been a defender of Brunell since acquiring him shortly after returning to coaching in 2004.
Brunell is 14-17 as Washington's starter over three years and the offense has been inconsistent this season, by Gibbs's admission, with the Redskins losing three straight. Regardless, Gibbs maintains that Brunell -- who has a solid 90.4 passer rating this season, with just seven touchdowns and three interceptions -- gives the team the best chance of winning Sunday.
For much of his two seasons here, Campbell's primary duty has been to mimic the opposing team's offense as the scout-team quarterback in practice. Barring injuries to Brunell, he does not play with the first-team offense in practice. He also is learning a new offense for the sixth time in six years.
"You can say what can you get from" running the scout team? Gibbs said. "Well, you get quite a bit obviously in meetings and you get to learn from other people's mistakes, and many times you learn more from watching other people do it, and either be praised or criticized. It's all a learning experience for him and certainly he's worked extremely hard since he's been here and we just have to see when he plays. Hopefully, it's been time well spent and each and every one of those practices is a learning experience for him."
Gibbs has said that Campbell could be an effective quarterback right now, but, as the third quarterback he has little chance to play, which is not confidence-building. NFL rules state that if a third quarterback is inserted before the fourth quarter, a team's first two quarterbacks cannot be used in the game at any position. In Week 7, with Indianapolis blowing out the Redskins in the fourth quarter, Gibbs kept Brunell in the game.
Even Romo, an undrafted free agent signed in 2003, was holding for kicks by 2004. Other recent top draft choices are already starting -- Tennessee rookie Vince Young won his first NFL game against Washington in Week 6 -- and even those stuck behind a proven passer, like 2005 first-round pick Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay (behind Brett Favre), got into a few games in their first or second seasons. Six quarterbacks taken in the past two drafts are starting and two other starters last week, Seneca Wallace (Seattle) and Romo, had virtually no previous game experience.
In two weeks, if not starting, Campbell likely will be reminded of his plight again as the Redskins face Tampa Bay, with 2006 sixth-round pick Bruce Gradkowski under center for the Buccaneers. Yet Campbell's biggest career highlight thus far was the chance to lead the first-team offense for consecutive days in practice during the bye week with Brunell ailing.
"Last year I didn't get anything close to this," Campbell said of the practice time. "This year I got a chance to at least get a couple of days of reps in, and I feel like if my number is called I'm ready. Last week the guys had to get used to me, and this week I can tell it's way better than it was last week. I feel way more comfortable and confident in the plays, and I feel like if I get more reps the sky is the limit."
Gibbs said he was impressed with Campbell's work. "Sometimes it's awful hard to be excited about things when you know there's a chance you're not going to play during the week. But I can tell that week was good for him to get the work. I think he was even nervous about it a little bit. You could see it out there, which is good. Those are good experiences for him, and he needs to go through that."
And, no doubt, he will continue to be patient. He is a humble, grounded individual, with a clear grasp of his place on the team and where he is in his career. Remaining the quarterback of the future is far from perfect, but it will do for now.
"The biggest thing is I want to be a winner," Campbell said. "I want to win with whoever is in there, so you support them and when I'm in there I'd expect Mark to do the same. Right now, Mark's the guy, and I understand that I'm the next guy up and I'll do everything in my possibility to be ready until that time, because I know I am the guy who is going to end up playing in the future, and right now I really do want to win."