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Now Starting, A Glimmer of Hope

By Thomas Boswell
Monday, November 20, 2006

TAMPA Jason Campbell is just fine. Unfortunately, the rest of 'em still stink.

In the midst of another galling loss, this one a 20-17 defeat to the lowly Bucs on Sunday, the Redskins finally saw the first clear flicker of starlight leading them toward their future. That glow is still a ways off. But at least you can see it without a telescope.

The Redskins now have a kid quarterback with some poise, wheels and a rifle. He can avoid a rush, roll out of the pocket and throw across his body through traffic or he can drop back and wing it 60 yards directly between the hands of Brandon Lloyd. Not that Lloyd will catch it. Campbell can buy time in the red zone with his feet until he can find his third receiver, then zing the ball to the only available spot for a touchdown, as he did to Chris Cooley and Todd Yoder.

Despite making his debut on the road, Campbell can even complete 19 of 34 passes for 196 yards without an interception, take hits in the pocket without a fumble and run the offense without a single timeout caused by chaos or a delay-of-game penalty. The short version: Campbell ran the offense as well without Clinton Portis and Santana Moss as Mark Brunell did with them.

Now, the Redskins have a spry 24-year-old first-round pick who makes you smile when you see Brunell, 36, and Todd Collins, 35 -- because you realize they are sitting harmlessly, examining photos of defensive formulations to help Campbell decide where to put the ball.

"Jason had a real good first outing," Coach Joe Gibbs said. "He handled things well, including the two-minute drill at the end. The game plan was cautious, but he had a lot [of plays] in there. He was real calm. We have a lot to build on there."

So that's the good news. There's plenty of bad, especially more putrid defense. But at least Gibbs doesn't have to wake up screaming. That is, if he can sleep at all after a game in which a 3-7 team manhandled both his offensive and defensive lines. However, when you have a gentlemanly, coachable 6-foot-4, 230-pound cannon at quarterback, there's always another Sunday.

"The future is bright, but it'll take a little time," Campbell said. "I didn't feel any pressure. I felt comfortable all day. Right now it doesn't seem like it but I guarantee you we are headed in the right direction."

That right direction may not arrive tomorrow or even this season because all young quarterbacks -- even the best -- come unglued many times during a multiseason learning process. At crucial moments over the final six Redskins games, Campbell will think he's playing a malevolent video game that's suddenly been turned to warp speed. Into that indecipherable blur he will have to rifle a third-down pass and hope it doesn't produce disaster.

But someday, if all goes well, he'll recognize more and more of what he sees. Then he'll make men like Ronde Barber pay for their insolence. "The theme of the day really was just put pressure on the kid. . . . We tried to blitz, give him as many looks as we could," Barber said after the Bucs held the Redskins to 63 yards in the first half. "I'll give him some credit. He played well, especially in the second half. He seemed like he got it together a little bit, had a little more control of the offense and moved around a little bit."

Unfortunately for the 3-7 Redskins, the most expensive team in the NFL has far bigger problems than a novice quarterback. It's the other burgundy-and-gold recidivists who are the issue. How can a healthy Washington defense allow Carnell "Cadillac" Williams, in a slump all season, to run like a Bentley? Facing a rookie quarterback (Bruce Gradkowski) who won't throw much, how do you allow 181 yards rushing? Facing a defense without its two best linemen, Simeon Rice and Ellis Wyms, how do you gain only 64 yards rushing, even if you don't have Clinton Portis? What went wrong?

"Rewind the tape. It's been the same story all season," fullback Mike Sellers said. "We were supposed to have [Campbell's] back and we didn't."

Fans love to discuss quarterbacks. They perform out in the open, easily visible, their strengths and failures comprehensible. But who knows what happens along the line of scrimmage, where football games are usually decided? Even linemen -- especially Redskins linemen this season -- often have a glazed look after games, as if they're honestly not sure who sinned.

Right now, it's the Redskins who play "in the box" who are guilty, guilty, guilty. "For the Redskins, we have certain principles. We've got to run and stop the run. If we violate those principles, we're not going to win," Gibbs said. Of this game he said, "That's just not us." Except that it is this season.

"Guys have to be where they are supposed to be. We're out of our gaps. Runners are breaking tackles," defensive tackle Phillip Daniels said. "Our defense just has to perform better. We look at each other like, 'Man, what's up? What's going on?' We need to study more, know your job inside and out, whatever it takes to make this thing work, because it will work. It worked last year."

Ah, last season, when the Redskins beat the Bucs here in the playoffs. Surely, with just a few more tens of millions spent a title contender could be bought. Now, the free agents of '06 are making the atrocious acquisitions of '00 -- Deion Sanders, Jeff George and Bruce Smith -- look like front-office brilliance. Safety Adam Archuleta is a non-person, gulag-ed. When Troy Vincent got hurt, Vernon Fox played safety, not Archuleta. Defensive end Andre Carter had his third one-tackle game of the season. Against the Giants he had zero. With Santana Moss inactive, Antwaan Randle El caught one 14-yard pass.

Then there's Lloyd. On the Redskins' first offensive play, Lloyd dropped a potential a 74-yard touchdown pass on a play-action bomb that Sonny Jurgensen had half-jokingly proposed to Al Saunders earlier in the week. "Okay, just for you," Saunders said. Actually, Lloyd whiffed as it went between his hands untouched.

Perhaps, over the next three weeks at home, Campbell will be the tonic this team needs. Faced with Super Bowl preseason hype, few Redskins teams have ever unraveled more completely. For the seventh time, the Redskins defense allowed at least 344 yards, this time 359 in all. So far this year, the offense has had 325 yards only twice. Conclusion? Week after week, on both sides of the ball, the Redskins have been outplayed by wide margins. If anything, their luck has been good. They can thank Vincent's blocked field goal against the Cowboys that they aren't 2-8.

That's why Campbell's arrival is so important. For 14 years this franchise has consistently misjudged how close it was to a return to glory. Team after team has been overestimated. One offseason after another has been filled with short-sighted last-piece-of-the-puzzle acquisitions by a franchise that barely had a coherent image of itself, much less a nearly finished picture of a champ. Playing Campbell while Brunell sits is the beginning of realism, an acknowledgement that this will take time. So, relax.

Many more Sundays will be needed to discover Campbell's skills and limits. However, if this game is remembered, it will be only because of Campbell's debut. "I'm relieved. It was fun, exciting. It'll never, ever come again -- your first NFL game," said Campbell, who forgot to retrieve the ball from his first touchdown pass but had the souvenir salvaged by a teammate. "I'll put the ball in a case at home and get Cooley to autograph it," Campbell said.

"Coach Gibbs told me I did some good things," he said. "He said, 'Just keep sawing, keep chopping wood.' "

The Redskins face a forest. Maybe they'll finally realize that hacking the whole thing down takes time. As well as that most rare of virtues at Redskins Park -- lots and lots of patience.

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