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A Franchise Faces Growing Pains

By Thomas Boswell
Monday, December 4, 2006

Bring a sandwich. This Jason Campbell project may take a while. In fact, bring a couple of seasons' worth of provisions. Some extra-strength pain relievers wouldn't hurt. For your raw nerves, soothing postgame music might not be a bad idea.

However, if you're the impatient sort, like the tens of thousands who left FedEx Field early yesterday as the Redskins lost, 24-14, to Atlanta, perhaps you should avert your eyes. Or, if you're cranky, at least don't boo like the thousands of fans who stayed to express their displeasure at paying NFL prices to watch the Redskins' version of Quarterback Classroom.

The full weight of the Redskins' decision to switch to their quarterback of the future became apparent in this loss. Almost every nightmare a young quarterback dreads befell Campbell. Presumably, there will be better days. But, for now, come if you want to see instruction in the most basic elements of the sport. For now, Campbell isn't even asked to run a no-huddle offense with the game dripping away. That's in another chapter for another day.

"Certainly there are a lot of things that Jason would like to have back. It was a learning experience for him. He's a young guy. It was a tough day for him," said Coach Joe Gibbs after the game, a towel wrapped around his bleeding right hand that he said he'd accidentally cut. "That's a process they have to go through sometimes. You hope it wouldn't happen, but he will be a better player because of it."

Someday. This isn't the divine Tony Romo situation in Dallas, where the Cowboys handed their starting job to a barely tested quarterback and discovered they have a polished product. This isn't even comparable to the Giants enduring the rough edges of Eli Manning's early years. In light of Sunday's revelations, what we have here is a full-blown project.

On third downs, faced with blitzes, Campbell had little clue how to respond. "They brought the house," he said. And usually it fell on him. Sometimes Atlanta batted down his passes. Sometimes he missed his receivers. Take your choice. The result was a statistically poor day -- 18-for-38 passing for 218 yards, 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions. But the reality was worse.

On a second-down blitz in the third quarter, with the Redskins ahead 14-10, Campbell panicked. In the grasp of safety Lawyer Milloy, the 24-year-old should have taken a sack with Washington still in field goal range. Instead, he accidentally mimicked the infamous Garo Yepremian pass against Washington in Super Bowl VII. Campbell's big throwing motion produced only a tiny fluttering pass that fell into the grateful hands of defensive end Chauncey Davis, who lumbered 41 yards to the Washington 25. With that mistake in judgment, the last shreds of momentum from an early 14-0 lead disappeared. Two plays later, Atlanta scored for a 17-14 lead it never lost.

The worst scenes, however, were saved for last. For much of this game, the Redskins maintained their dignity behind 155 yards rushing by Ladell Betts and seven receptions for 123 yards by Santana Moss. However, trailing by 10 points in the fourth quarter, the Redskins had no choice but to turn the game over to Campbell. Someday he may command such moments the way a Peyton Manning or Tom Brady does, husbanding every second on the clock, using a no-huddle offense and terrifying the defense as he leads a comeback. Actually, if Campbell is ever half that good, it may suffice. Now he's simply not prepared.

The Redskins didn't even attempt a true hurry-up or no-huddle offense in the fourth quarter. As the crowd grasped that it was watching an NFL amateur hour, the booing started. With their infinitesimal chance to stay in the playoff hurt all but disappearing, the Redskins required 29, 34, 35, 36, 38, 40 and 47 seconds between plays. Imagine any veteran quarterback squandering such huge chunks of precious time. Of course, you can't. Many fans were not pleased as the truth became obvious: the Redskins ran more line plunges and dump passes than aggressive passes because they wanted to protect Campbell's psyche, defend his confidence and let him gain yardage. A win would have been a bonus.

This game illustrated how tightly the Redskins' future is tied to the speed of Campbell's development. If it is a relatively quick education, the Redskins might turn a corner faster than many imagine. If it is slower, the future could be dispiriting indeed.

Despite all their flaws, the Redskins still might have beaten a decent 6-6 team with Michael Vick. Without Clinton Portis, Washington pounded out 177 yards rushing. A dropped pass by Chris Cooley squandered one field goal and a miss from 50 yards by Shaun Suisham cost another three points. Does anybody have Mike Vanderjagt's cell number?

"We have stuff that we believe in. When we stick with it, I think we can win football games," said Gibbs, who has never had to mesh a veteran team built for a title run with a young quarterback just starting to mastering his craft. "It's a tough time we're going through. Each one of these games from here on out is precious. We're going to fight our guts out."

Gibbs has intensely transmitted to his players that their ability to stick together now -- or fall apart -- will probably define their future. "I hope he didn't punch anything," said tackle Chris Samuels, concerned about Gibbs's bleeding hand.

There will be Sundays, like one just eight days ago, when a perfect Campbell pass to Cooley produces a game-winning fourth-quarter touchdown. There will be others, like this one, that show how much he still has to learn and how quickly.

"You can't get your head down. You can't go in the tank. You have to walk tall," said Campbell, who has been surprised that his long throwing motion allows defensive linemen time to jump in his face and bat down passes. "You have to grow with the pains. That's all with it.

"On the [Davis] interception, [Milloy] grabbed the back of my jersey and I was trying to throw the ball away and save us field position." Instead, the ball traveled barely two yards and control of the game changed hands with it.

"I still have a lot to learn," said Campbell, who conceded that he didn't even know how to slide after a 13-yard scramble.

For now, Campbell is so unfamiliar with his first-string receivers and the speed of NFL play that he frequently doesn't even release a pass until after the receiver has already made his break. "Sid Gillman used to say, 'If you see your receiver is open, it's already too late,' " Saunders said. "He'll pick all those things up. He's fortunate to get this exposure. He has a bright future.

"We've got a young puppy here who's a great kid with great talent. He's made progress. But he still has a long way to go."

And the Redskins and their fans probably have a long time to wait.

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