By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 10, 2006
An hour after completing the most disappointing game of his fledgling career, Jason Campbell was called into Joe Gibbs's office at FedEx Field. The Washington Redskins' 24-14 loss to Atlanta last Sunday, punctuated by two interceptions from the second-year quarterback, effectively quashed whatever playoff hopes remained for the team. But Gibbs's words left Campbell more enthused than ever about his future.
For 20 minutes, Campbell and the Hall of Fame coach chatted, and for the first time Gibbs explicitly told him that his apprenticeship was more than a half-season audition.
"Coach said, 'You're our guy, you're going to be here and we're going to try to build things around you,' " Campbell said. "He feels like we have all the pieces to the puzzle on offense here, and we just have to put them together. Coach said, 'We're in a new offense right now, but going into next season I'll have all the reps in [spring practices] and the whole offseason to get used to everybody.' "
After going nearly two years between his final college game at Auburn and first NFL appearance, Campbell was elated. Gibbs had seen enough in Campbell's first three starts to commit to shaping the team around the former first-round pick. Gibbs reminded Campbell that future Hall of Famers such as Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts struggled early in their careers, and told him he was faring well by comparison.
Campbell accommodated nearly a dozen television interview requests after his postgame news conference, then went to dinner with his parents and cousin before heading home to Lansdowne.
He largely avoided the Sunday night game on television, even though it featured Denver's Jay Cutler, another young quarterback making his NFL debut. Campbell said he sulked for a while, still miffed about some errant throws. "I kind of kept to myself, nagging myself after the loss, putting all the blame on myself," he said.
But Gibbs's words resonated in his head. Looking ahead to today's game against the Philadelphia Eagles at FedEx Field, Campbell began a week of preparation he may never forget. For the first time in his two years in Washington, Campbell could contemplate the future confident that his tenure would extend beyond the conclusion of the 2006 season.MONDAY
The feeling was familiar but distant, a pain he had avoided his first 27 games as a professional. Campbell sat in bed calculating where the aches came from -- his back, ribs and shoulders -- then got dressed for work.
"That was rough, you're still hurting all over," Campbell said. "The guys all said, 'Welcome to the NFL.' You're beat up on Monday. You can't move for a while, especially after a loss."
After making the 10-minute drive to Redskins Park in Ashburn, Campbell met privately with associate head coach Al Saunders in his office. Saunders reinforced many of the same themes as Gibbs. "We talked a long time about how this is just the beginning, and there are a lot of phases to your development," Saunders said. "One is physical, one is mental and one is psychological, and all those things together make what he'll be 10 years down the road. Jason has done a terrific job so far. A lot of things on the football field in the game, he will improve on with experience, and I'm so proud of him already."
Later that morning, Campbell, fellow quarterbacks Mark Brunell and Todd Collins and their position coach, Bill Lazor, reviewed film of Sunday's game, dissecting Campbell's performance. The coaches met with the entire offense, and Campbell met individually with Lazor before returning home.
"We always have alone time to watch really specific techniques," Lazor said. "For Jason, Monday is time to deal with performance and evaluation."
Campbell, who says he is a homebody, joined tackle Chris Samuels at the Washington Wizards game against the Dallas Mavericks that night. They left Verizon Center a little early and Samuels, a seven-year veteran who is charged with protecting the quarterback's blind side on passing plays, took Campbell to dinner.
Campbell, a native of tiny Taylorsville, Miss., later tried to recall where they had eaten. "I think it was the Rio Grill or something like that," he said. Samuels reported it actually had been Ruth's Chris Steak House.
"After a tough game, I just wanted to make sure he wasn't being too hard on himself," Samuels said. "I just encouraged him, and he has a positive attitude on everything. He's going to be a good one."
Before Campbell was named the starter last month, Monday nights were for bowling. Campbell, neighbor Carlos Rogers, his college teammate and the Redskins starting cornerback, and Redskins head athletic trainer John Burrell were a regular threesome. Now Campbell avoids anything that would tax his arm, so bowling is out.
As a rookie in 2005, Campbell said, he was lonely sometimes. He didn't know his teammates well; most of them had wives and family obligations. It was a stark contrast to five years of campus life at Auburn.
"In college you could always just walk to your homeboy's apartment and go catch a dinner together," Campbell said. "It's a lot different now."
When he wants to escape his job now, Campbell heads to the movie theater or ESPN Zone. He eats almost every meal out since he has limited cooking skills and doesn't like leftovers, making exceptions only for pizza and Thanksgiving remnants. He shoots basketballs with Rogers at the outdoor court adjacent to the recreation center behind their yards, or sometimes hangs out with fullback Mike Sellers and tailback Rock Cartwright. Linebacker Khary Campbell lives across the street and, during the season, wide receiver Santana Moss lives at the end of the street.
"The partying and being out in public, that's not Jason," Khary Campbell said. "He's reserved, quiet and he carries himself really well. He's the type of guy I feel can stand up to anything and handle the pressure. Living across from him and seeing how he's a young athlete in this situation as the starting quarterback now, I can tell you he's a really humble guy who appreciates where he is in life."TUESDAY
Tuesday is normally a day off for NFL teams that play on Sundays. But like many of his teammates, Campbell began his day at Redskins Park, where he spent the morning reviewing film with Lazor. He also picked up the first of several DVDs he would be issued during the week, each about 90 minutes long and focused on an aspect of the Eagles' defense: first, second or third downs, blitz tendencies and red-zone defense.
Around noon, a limousine arrived at Redskins Park, and Campbell -- shedding his trademark Jordan sportswear for a suit -- was off to Clyde's of Tysons Corner for a Quarterback Club event. He returned to Ashburn and by 3 p.m. was back in his black Mercedes-Benz sedan for the commute home.
Campbell pulled into the driveway of his large, brick townhouse, his eyes drawn to the goal posts on the community field behind his home. Inside, Campbell's father, Larry, was sitting in the living room watching ESPN on the plasma television, while his mother, Carolyn, chatted at the kitchen table with Campbell's cousin, Terry Evans, a high school teammate. Campbell's parents have been staying with him for three weeks -- throughout this Redskins homestand -- but will return to Mississippi after today's game.
They rarely missed a game at Auburn, but could not attend his first pro start in Tampa last month. "That was tough that first game, not being there," Carolyn Campbell said. "But seeing him now, it's really special, so special. We always wondered about other parents, how they felt and everything, and then when it happens to you, you say, 'Wow, this is kind of crazy.' "
An ESPN feature on Dallas Cowboys first-year starter Tony Romo briefly caught Campbell's eye. "They're comparing him to [Roger] Staubach and [Troy] Aikman already?" he said to no one in particular.
His father, who coached football and basketball for more than 30 years, watched quietly. He was still savoring what Gibbs had told his son two days earlier. "When a head coach says that and shows you things and notices what you can do, that's really all you can ask for," he said. "You know what he's saying isn't just words, it's something he sees and wants you to know. That's definitely a great thing."
After dinner the living room was transformed into a business center. The twin stacks of video games and the pile of movies -- "The Godfather," "Crash," "Be Cool," among others -- on the entertainment center gave way to Lazor's DVD. Campbell settled into his mustard-brown couch and went to work.
If not for the small photo of Campbell wearing his Auburn jersey almost obscured by a large plant in one corner, there are no signs that a professional football player, or any 24-year-old single male for that matter, lives in the house. It is impeccably clean and the walls are painted in neutral colors. The deep hardwood floors glisten, and the stainless steel appliances and gleaming countertops in the kitchen seem largely untouched.
Campbell's mother offered to help decorate when he arrived after receiving a $5 million signing bonus from the Redskins in 2005, but was rebuffed. "I didn't need no help doing this here. I did it all. I even picked out the blinds. He put them up," the quarterback said, pointing to his father, "but everything else was mine."
Campbell, the youngest of three children, studied film beneath a painting of three jazz musicians. He jotted down thoughts on every play in a notebook, and rewound the disc repeatedly. "I want to see everything at least three times, to the point where I see the same tendencies," Campbell said.
Around 8 p.m. a lengthy fax from Lazor arrived. It contained the shell of Sunday's game plan, featuring about 200 offensive plays and some notes of emphasis from the coach. Campbell was expected to have a strong grasp of it by morning.WEDNESDAY/ THURSDAY
At 8:30 a.m., Campbell was back in meetings, first among the quarterbacks and then with the entire offense. Saunders reviewed the Eagles' base defense, using film from as recent as last week or as old as last season.
"We've been working even more specifically with Jason the last couple of weeks, about how to learn to study and what to look for on film," Lazor said. "Hopefully, every week he gets better and better with that and gets himself a step ahead. So when Wednesday comes he's seen some of it, and it clicks."
In past weeks, Lazor has harped on a particular detail -- refining Campbell's first step after the snap was the primary message after his first start -- but this week there is no theme.
The offense walked through plays on the field at lunchtime, and the entire team practiced from 2 to 4 p.m.
Campbell showered, then headed upstairs to review every play from the just-completed practice. He got home around 7, dozed off for a spell and spent the rest of the night studying the second DVD Lazor had prepared on Philadelphia's defense. He was in bed by 11.
The next morning, Campbell's meetings at Redskins Park began at 7:30.
"Jason is under continual preparedness in the classroom and on the field that entire time," said Saunders, who is focused on accelerating everything Campbell does on the field, from his thought processes to his delivery.
Saunders focused on third-down situations in the quarterback meeting and team meeting. The offense reviewed Wednesday's practice, and Saunders superimposed images of the Eagles' defense on a board with the formations the Redskins would run, letting the players review the defensive fronts they expect to see on third-down plays. The team practiced from noon to 2 p.m.; Campbell looked good, coaches said.
The Redskins' staff was enthused that Campbell and Moss connected for 123 yards and a 42-yard touchdown against Atlanta, and are hopeful the two will develop a chemistry. Campbell's long stint as the No. 3 quarterback and Moss's recent hamstring injuries prevented them from practicing much together until late November.
After the season, Campbell plans to invite Washington's receivers to join him at the rigorous passing camp Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb conducts at his Arizona home every winter.
Campbell also decided after his talk with Gibbs that he will make every effort to visit Moss at his Miami home at least once in the offseason to run routes and foster a bond. "It's not hard for me to hop on an airplane and go to Miami and throw to him," Campbell said. "I'll work around them. I'm not the one married and with kids. I'm single, so I can just adjust to them."
The quarterback left Ashburn around 6 p.m. after reviewing film, another DVD in hand.
Campbell planned to scan HBO for a movie when he got home, but a neighbor unexpectedly invited him over for dinner to celebrate his starting role. He was home early to study film until he went to bed.THE WEEKEND
Campbell returned to Redskins Park for an 8:30 meeting Friday morning, when the offense implemented the goal-line, red-zone and short-yardage offense. There was another battery of meetings and a lighter practice that ended around 1:30 p.m.
Yesterday, Campbell reported by 8:30 a.m., participated in a walk-through and took a written test from Lazor along with the other quarterbacks. (Lazor also goes through Campbell's playbooks at the end of each week, glancing at his notes and study aids.)
"The hay is almost in the barn by now," Saunders said. "It's about relaxing and getting yourself ready for the game."