By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 20, 2006
TAMPA, Nov. 19 -- The first play would have to be something spectacular. So in the days before Washington Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell threw his first National Football League pass, the coaches devised the perfect plan -- he would fake a handoff to a running back, then unleash a long heave deep downfield to a wide receiver all alone. They practiced it over and over on the practice fields at Redskins Park until they were certain that if it worked to perfection, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers wouldn't know what hit them.
And it did work as they imagined. Wide receiver Brandon Lloyd sprinted down the sideline without any Buccaneers in sight. And upon seeing him so open Campbell delivered a throw that climbed high into the Florida sun, right to Lloyd, a certain touchdown. Until the ball fell into Lloyd's waiting hands.
Then through his hands.
"I should have caught it," Lloyd later said, glumly shaking his head. "I wanted to make that catch for him."
Thus came the first harsh truth of Campbell's fledgling Redskins career. Even the best plans of this Washington team, practiced with precision, have a way of crumbling into dust.
Sunday's game showed the Redskins' problems aren't simply about the quarterback and aren't going to be solved by replacing Mark Brunell. Campbell made few mistakes and threw his first two career touchdown passes, but the Redskins still lost, 20-17, to a Tampa Bay team that had won only twice and was employing a little-known rookie quarterback. Washington's defense, the strength of the team in years past but a weakness this season, gave up 359 yards to the league's third-worst offense.
"I'm probably more concerned about other things on our football team" than Campbell, said Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs, whose team, at 3-7, would have at best a remote chance at the playoffs even if it wins all its remaining games.
Campbell did not show the frustrations of a 24-year-old unaccustomed to failure. He didn't roll his eyes or throw up his arms. He held that same steady stare in the huddle that he kept all week during the flood of interviews where his answers were steady and impassive.
"He's cool, man," Lloyd said. "It's like he's been there before. He was calm. He didn't mess up any of our plays. Going out there for the first time it's like a culture shock, but it didn't seem to affect him at all."
This is the comfort the Redskins could take from their defeat Sunday. On an afternoon when yet another team slashed through their defense and their wide receivers couldn't hold on to perfect passes, Campbell brought some hope of a brighter future. He did not warily eye the Tampa Bay pass rush instead of looking for receivers. He didn't force plays that were covered by the defense. And when he spoke in the huddle, his voice was clear and there was never a doubt who was in charge.
Yet as booming as his words were on the field, Campbell's voice was soft, almost shy after the game. He walked into his first postgame news conference as a starting quarterback wearing a tan suit and barely mumbling over the hum of an air conditioning unit. When asked if he was nervous during the afternoon, he smiled.
"I felt comfortable the whole game," he said. "I didn't feel any pressure, my teammates were behind me."
Later, as he stood waiting for what must have been his fifth or sixth television interview, he said he slept well Saturday night and did not fret about the start. He said that before games he visualizes himself making fantastic plays, trying to imagine what the defense will look like, where his teammates will be and how the touchdowns will actually feel. He smiled again and said, "I felt fine," then added, "I wish I had a couple passes back."
But no one around the Redskins would complain about his performance: 19 completions on 34 throws for 196 yards and two touchdowns. Mostly they raved about his first touchdown pass, which came early in the second half and with Washington on the Tampa Bay 3-yard line, desperately needing something good to happen. Campbell rolled to his right, looked for his first receiver, then, upon finding no one open, waited patiently for Chris Cooley to slip alone for the briefest of moments. Just enough time for Campbell to fire in a pass for a touchdown.
"It was a good job by Cooley," Campbell said.
His teammates wouldn't buy it.
"He's got great play-making abilities," Lloyd said.