Campbell Gets Shot to Go From Idle to Idol

Second-year quarterback Jason Campbell, right, has backed up Todd Collins, left, and Mark Brunell this season.
Second-year quarterback Jason Campbell, right, has backed up Todd Collins, left, and Mark Brunell this season. (By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 15, 2006

When Jason Campbell was told to report to Coach Joe Gibbs's office after a team meeting Monday afternoon, he felt jittery, like he was back in school being ordered to the principal's office. Instead, he was greeted with the best news of his professional life.

After 27 games of being inactive and holding a clipboard as the Washington Redskins' third quarterback, Campbell was told he would be the starter Sunday against Tampa Bay, 19 months after he was drafted 25th overall in April 2005. All the days spent throwing footballs through a tire hanging from a tree in the back yard of his boyhood home of Taylorsville, Miss., the years spent honing his skills under his father's guidance, then leading Auburn to the top of college football, finally will lead to him playing in an NFL game.

"It's a new era with me," Campbell said yesterday. "From my standpoint, I just want to continue being myself and just work hard."

The era will begin with the Redskins at 3-6, performing well below expectations and with veteran quarterback Mark Brunell unable to coax more points and big plays from what was supposed to be a dynamic attack.

Campbell, 6 feet 4 and 228 pounds, is hoping to merely feel comfortable enough in this pressure-packed setting to do what he has done before: control a huddle and stay calm under duress; elude the rush and make plays on the run; throw the ball accurately and avoid backbreaking turnovers; keep the defense honest with deep throws when need be.

If he can be as successful as he was in high school and college, the Redskins will have solved their 12-year quest for a long-term answer at quarterback, dating from Super Bowl winner Mark Rypien. And if he fails after all the Redskins have invested in him, the team will face another crisis at the most important position on the field, and Gibbs's attempt to restore the franchise to past glory will have suffered a devastating blow.

Campbell has played only a few quarters of preseason football since the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 3, 2005, and has rarely even practiced with Washington's starters, making an assessment of his development difficult.

"If you're going to go wrong at the quarterback position, go wrong with things I can look at," said former quarterback Phil Simms, now a CBS analyst who studied all of Campbell's games from his senior season. "And I know now he's big. I know he has decent movement for a guy his size and can take a hit and withstand punishment. I know he has a very good NFL arm. I've never met him and I don't know anything else about him, but I know that, and that's a dang good start."

Campbell was raised in tiny Taylorsville, a coach's son who did little besides play football, basketball and baseball. Campbell was the pride of the area, leading Taylorsville High School to a state title before heading to Auburn as one of the nation's top prospects.

The turmoil Campbell would experience in five years at Auburn (he was redshirted), with a new offensive system and new offensive coordinator in each of his final four years there and fans screaming for him to lose his starting job in his first three seasons, may have provided the best preparation for life as an NFL quarterback. He and the program struggled early, but players and teammates said Campbell never complained about the revolving door of offensive coaches, or being benched at times as a freshman and sophomore.

"Jason will fit in anywhere," Auburn Coach Tommy Tuberville said after the draft. "He's very unassuming, he doesn't have a big ego and he's willing to learn and change things and adapt."

Campbell would organize his teammates for voluntary practices and workouts in the offseason and visited underclassmen in the dorms, helping keep them out of trouble. By the midpoint of his senior season, fans were showing up at his apartment for pictures and autographs. In Al Borges, his offensive coordinator that season and a noted quarterback coach, Campbell found a mentor.

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