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If You Don't Play the Kid, How Do You Know He Can Play?

By Michael Wilbon
Saturday, November 4, 2006

It's time to put Jason Campbell in a real, live NFL game. Actually, the time was two weeks ago in Indianapolis. The Colts were beating the Redskins senseless late in the fourth quarter. It was the perfect time to put Campbell in. The Redskins were going into a bye week. The game was lost. They had dropped to 2-5.

There was absolutely nothing to lose that day. The situation was screaming out for Campbell to go into the game . . . unless you're a proponent of Mark Brunell staying in to fatten up his numbers. Talk about a lost opportunity.

At some point, Joe Gibbs and Al Saunders might want to find out if Campbell can play; the sooner the better. The kid could be the next Carson Palmer or Ben Roethlisberger, which would be an upgrade over Brunell in his sunset years. Or he could be Cade McNown or Akili Smith, which would be regrettable. Either way, you'd want to know, wouldn't you? And the only way the Redskins are going to find out is to play the kid. Campbell doesn't need to start, necessarily, but play.

There's hardly a No. 1 quarterback in the NFL today who didn't throw a pass his first two seasons in the NFL. But Campbell is on his way to that distinction. In fact, the Redskins have made him inactive in all 25 games he has spent in the NFL. Not a pass, not a snap. That's more of an indictment of the Redskins than of Campbell.

This isn't the NFL of the 1960s or '70s . . . or even the 1980s, when coaches thought quarterbacks needed two or three years of seasoning. In today's NFL, if you pick him you play him . . . and fairly straightaway, especially when you give up draft picks in the first, third and fourth rounds to trade up and get him. For a team that uses its draft picks wisely, that's three starters. So far, the Redskins don't know if using the 25th pick on Campbell will yield one starter.

Look, I was not an early-season proponent of benching Brunell, and if the Redskins were 4-3 going into the game tomorrow against the Cowboys I surely wouldn't be on this kick now. But it's clear that this marriage between Saunders and Brunell isn't working. It appears Saunders wants a quarterback who can zip the ball into windows and tight spaces, while Brunell was conditioned last year by Gibbs to make the safe plays and not screw it up. But Washington is 2-5, and what Saunders wants from Brunell isn't taking. The Redskins need some help right now, and heaven knows they need to know who their quarterback is going into the future. The future of the Redskins isn't Brunell any more than the future of the Cowboys is Drew Bledsoe.

So to trade three potential starters for a quarterback, then not use him at all is about as wasteful as it gets in the NFL these days. Too much time and money are invested in first-round quarterbacks to wait two-plus years to get them ready to play, or at least find out if they can.

Six quarterbacks who will start tomorrow were drafted in Campbell's class of 2005 or in 2006: San Francisco's Alex Smith, Tampa Bay's Bruce Gradkowski, Cleveland's Charlie Frye, Arizona's Matt Leinart, Tennessee's Vince Young and Oakland's Andrew Walter. If you expand the list to include the 2004 draftees, add Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, J.P. Losman and Roethlisberger. That means 10 of the league's 32 starters (which doesn't even count the injured Chris Simms) are in their third year or less.

How will Campbell be ready even by his third season if he doesn't play some now?

Once upon a time, in the dark ages of the 1980s, Gibbs was able to put Stan Humphries and Mark Rypien on the inactive list and let them age like wine.

That's over. It's not just superstars like Peyton Manning, Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick who played as rookies. So did Marc Bulger, David Carr, Byron Leftwich, Steve McNair, Bledsoe, Jake Plummer and Joey Harrington.

None was great right away, not even Manning. But they got started.

The late bloomers, guys who didn't get into the mix until their second seasons, were Palmer, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Brett Favre and Daunte Culpepper. Leftwich played 15 games as a rookie and threw 418 passes.

Even the guys who mostly sat for two years (Damon Huard, Rivers, Mark Brunell, Chad Pennington, Matt Hasselbeck and Brad Johnson) played a little bit as rookies or sophomores. (Jake Delhomme and Kurt Warner were very late bloomers and out of the NFL for years but they weren't chosen in the first round, like Campbell.) Everybody who is playing now threw at least one pass in his first two seasons . . . except the Cowboys' Tony Romo.

Of course, the Steelers didn't want to play Roethlisberger as a rookie. But they did, and in his second season he won the Super Bowl.

Eli Manning might very well be in the process of leading his Giants to the Super Bowl this season, his third in the league.

While Palmer was sitting in his first season, behind Jon Kitna, Marvin Lewis and the Bengals designed a practice routine that very specifically would prepare Palmer to start in his second season. Months before training camp even started in Palmer's second year, Lewis had named him the starting quarterback. And it's worked beautifully. Maybe the advantage Lewis had was in knowing his owners couldn't just blow money or draft picks on a quarterback who sits.

Certainly the Redskins have enough assistants to design some kind of personalized preparation regimen that could have gotten Campbell to the point where he'd have played at least a few snaps by now. And please don't tell me that 35-year-old Todd Collins, who hasn't thrown a touchdown pass since 2002, is still ahead of Campbell! This isn't to criticize Collins in the least, but if Campbell is still behind Collins now, then the decision to trade up to draft Campbell, combined with the decision to bring in Saunders, who in turn brought in Collins, is utterly confusing, at best.

Two weeks ago, when it became apparent to him that he needed a fresher and more mobile quarterback, Bill Parcells went to the bullpen and summoned Romo, an NFL afterthought until recently, a player with none of Campbell's college pedigree. It's natural to wonder whether the Redskins, when they were watching the film of Romo shred the Carolina Panthers last week, noticed any similarities between the Cowboys' quarterback situation and their own.

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