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.
Campbell completed 69.6 percent of his passes as a senior -- second best in school history -- for 2,700 yards, with 20 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He finished 31-8 at Auburn, the most wins by any Tigers quarterback, and owns the school's best career completion percentage. He started in four straight bowl games, and led the team to a 13-0 record as a senior, including a Southeastern Conference title and Sugar Bowl victory.
"The things I like about Jason are, I think, the same things Coach Gibbs likes about him," Borges said last year from his office overlooking Auburn's practice fields. "He can throw in the pocket and he can also throw outside the pocket and he can escape situations a lot of times when the protection breaks down. You can roll him out. You can bootleg him. You can naked bootleg him. You can three-step drop him. You can do darn near anything you want, and he can see all the throws and he can make all the throws."
That spring, Gibbs became enamored with the polite and well-mannered young man.
He was wowed by the physical prowess and countless athletic attributes Campbell possessed, and brought his entire staff down to Auburn to meet the prospect. After that visit, the Redskins' interest was heightened, and they parted with three draft picks, including their first-round selection in 2006, to get an additional first-round pick from Denver and use it on Campbell despite having Brunell and 2002 first-round pick Patrick Ramsey already on the roster.
"We spent a whole morning with him in a motel room, and we asked him about every question you could ask," Gibbs said Monday. "We put [plays] on the board and talked about things and talked about football. And I think in Jason we've got somebody whose dad was a coach, he understands sports and he's been a brilliant athlete. Now we just have to go to work here. With all of us supporting him and everything, we certainly think we've got somebody who's very talented and we'll just see how this plays out."
Some NFL scouts worried that Campbell was a one-year wonder in college, another product of Borges's system who might struggle in the professional ranks (such as Borges's pupils Kyle Boller and Cade McNown). They pointed to the two Auburn running backs who were among the top five picks in the 2005 draft and the overall talent on the team, and wondered how much the Tigers' success had to do with Campbell's outstanding senior season.
"I was very impressed with Jason at the Senior Bowl," former Redskins quarterback Doug Williams, a Tampa Bay Buccaneers personnel executive, said this past summer. "And I think from a game standpoint for a guy to be that big and nimble and with his decision-making, that's what made him so good. He's able to move around and get outside the pocket and make plays, and he can step up and put the ball downfield. He's everything you can expect from a guy that size."
The Redskins are hoping that durability and elusiveness will aid their offensive line and invigorate an offense that has been unable to capitalize on a trio of highly paid wide receivers who are expected to be playmakers -- Santana Moss, Antwaan Randle El and Brandon Lloyd -- or get the ball downfield with any regularity.
"I'm very excited for this," guard Randy Thomas said.
If Campbell struggles, as most young quarterbacks do, he can hand off to running backs T.J. Duckett and Ladell Betts. Campbell already was chatting with Baltimore Ravens starter Steve McNair, a longtime friend, and Philadelphia Eagles star Donovan McNabb for advice Monday night, and will study film and work with the wide receivers after practices this week.
He has not played four full quarters of football in nearly two years and must regain his timing. But Borges still can recall Campbell's poise throughout that 2004 season, calling audibles and shepherding the offense in front of nearly 110,000 screaming fans at Tennessee, and expects the same unflappable quarterback to emerge in the NFL.
"You get pretty much the same look from Jason whether he throws a touchdown or an interception," Borges said during that interview in his office. "He doesn't get shook up."
The sights and the sounds now largely will be the same, but the stakes are much higher. The next few years will tell if Campbell's production will be unchanged as well, or if the Redskins' quarterback carousel will spin on.
"The time is mine," Campbell said. "The only thing I can do is go with it."