By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 27, 2006
Jason Campbell's headset was emitting pure static into his ear, malfunctioning in the dying minutes of the fourth quarter while 85,450 fans awaited what would be the defining play of the game and 10 teammates looked to him in the huddle. In only his second NFL start, the Washington Redskins' 24-year-old quarterback had lost his lifeline to his coaches, facing third and eight from the 34-yard line, with Washington trailing Carolina by three points and needing a first down to stay alive.
With the play clock dwindling, Campbell quickly called for an intermediate crossing route -- barking out a play the team had refined all week in practice -- then executed it with precision, leading tight end Chris Cooley at midfield against a blitz, and watching him rumble into the end zone for the game-winning, 66-yard touchdown with less than five minutes to play.
The first defining moment of Jason Campbell's career had unfolded at FedEx Field, and after being outplayed for six straight weeks, Washington finally had something tangible to rally around, with a 17-13 victory punctuating an otherwise dreary season of discontent.
"His play, we couldn't have asked for a whole lot more," said Coach Joe Gibbs, who delivered a pointed address to his underachieving team last Wednesday. "He's gone up against two of the toughest defenses in Tampa and Carolina and that's good news for us. He's certainly stepped up so far."
Campbell has exuded poise and moxie throughout his brief NFL career (he was inactive for 27 straight games before starting at Tampa Bay), rallying the Redskins (4-7) in the second half of each game, seeming at ease in his surroundings. Yesterday, Campbell, the 25th overall draft pick in 2005, faced his greatest adversity yet, beyond his sputtering headgear, while his teammates showed a resolve missing in Campbell's previous start. The defense had its best game of the season, the rushing offense was solid (Ladell Betts ran 24 times for 104 yards) and special teams had a partially blocked punt.
But in the end, the game was settled by Campbell's strong right arm, after he nearly gave it away.
The Panthers (6-5) took the lead midway through the fourth quarter, on a 15-play drive, converting four straight third-down chances, including an acrobatic, sprawling touchdown catch by wide receiver Steve Smith on third and seven from the 8. Momentum was swinging away from the Redskins, and on Campbell's next play he flung a ball to Santana Moss in double coverage, underthrowing the receiver for an easy interception.
Back on the sideline, Campbell (11 for 23 with two touchdown passes) remained composed, teammates and coaches said, and the defense forced a punt. Washington (2-5 within the NFC) got the ball back and on third down, Campbell's headset gave out just after he heard the formation. He was left to decide the rest on his own.
"I was thinking of this play the whole time," Campbell said. "It was the first thing I thought of."
The Redskins had been waiting for it to transpire all season, "We've worked on that thing since the beginning of OTAs [organized team activities] in the spring," offensive coordinator Don Breaux said, "over and over and over regardless of the quarterback."
But veteran starter Mark Brunell rarely threw over the middle. Campbell is more willing to thread the ball through tight quarters, and connected with his secondary option in this instance.
The play requires the quarterback to read two routes from left to right, with wide receiver Brandon Lloyd stationed wide left in this case. With Lloyd covered and the pass rush gaining, Campbell strode forward and looked to Cooley, who darted off the right end of the line, gained a step on cornerback Chris Gamble at midfield, and caught the pass.
Cooley shrugged off a diving tackle by safety Mike Minter and ran untouched the final 45 yards down the sideline for his fifth touchdown in six games. Cooley has become a top option with Moss hampered by a hamstring injury and Lloyd (one catch for eight yards) adrift in this offense.
"We know what Cooley can do when he gets his hands on the ball, and this kid will go to him," Joe Bugel, assistant head coach-offense, said. "We tell him, 'Look at Cooley.' "
With the Redskins holding a slim lead, the defense came through when safety Sean Taylor, rejuvenated after weeks of erratic play, pummeled receiver Drew Carter on fourth down, two yards shy of the first down. Later, Taylor's first interception of the season sealed the outcome.
The entire offense started slowly yesterday, with Washington going three and out five times in the first half, and neither team topping 115 total yards. The Redskins' sagging run defense was revived -- DeAngelo Williams ran 17 times for just 63 yards for the game -- and Smith, perhaps the most dangerous offensive player in football, was limited to five catches for 34 yards. After allowing 385 yards per game over the past six contests, Washington held Carolina to 264 yards, and intercepted two passes after having three through 10 games.
"We controlled the line of scrimmage a lot more," middle linebacker Lemar Marshall said. "We played with intensity. We saw guys swarming to the ball. We saw guys having fun and the crowd was into it. It's a great feeling."
Despite all of that, Washington trailed 6-3 at the half, with high-priced safety Adam Archuleta, benched from the defense again, failing to hold his block on a punt, allowing Carolina linebacker Adam Seward to deflect the ball and setting up the Panthers' go-ahead field goal. Rookie linebacker Rocky McIntosh deflected a punt in the third quarter, however, giving Washington the ball at the Panthers 36. Campbell was cool around the goal line on that drive, waiting for Antwaan Randle El to get open on third down for a four-yard scoring pass, and the Redskins led 10-6.
Campbell's second touchdown throw was certainly more glorious, keeping the Redskins, mathematically if not realistically, eligible for the postseason. There is still a great climb, however, and after 43 games since his return to coaching, Gibbs is 20-23, a mark that is identical to the franchise's preceding 43 games, perhaps the best indicator of what remains to be accomplished.