By Howard Bryant
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 21, 2006
When Jason Campbell replaced Mark Brunell as the starting quarterback before the Washington Redskins played Tampa Bay on Nov. 19, Coach Joe Gibbs's outward enthusiasm for Campbell appeared moderate at best. The coach's hand was forced by the team's 3-6 record.
For weeks, Gibbs tempered his praise of Campbell by almost immediately pointing out Campbell's deficiencies and offering reminders that Brunell had been having a solid statistical year and that the difficulty of making a change could not be underestimated.
But since the Redskins beat the New Orleans Saints, 16-10, on Sunday, Gibbs for the first time has talked with real enthusiasm about what dimensions Campbell gives the team, volunteering positive evaluation. After his fifth start, Campbell has begun to show small but important signs of becoming a Joe Gibbs quarterback.
A two-play sequence in the first quarter Sunday underscored Gibbs's rising enthusiasm. With the Redskins leading 3-0 with 2 minutes 24 seconds remaining, Campbell, on third and five from his 25-yard line, hit tight end Chris Cooley for 44 yards.
The play was reminiscent of the Campbell-Cooley connection against Carolina, when the two hooked up for a 66-yard game-winning pass play in a 17-13 Redskins win Nov. 26. Against the Saints, Cooley was lined up left in single coverage with safety Jay Bellamy, cut to the middle and bounced back to his left outside. Campbell hit Cooley on the run for a big gain, aided by blocks by Santana Moss and Antwaan Randle El.
"Jason showed he's good at inside crossing routes. When set in the pocket, he hit Chris, and he hit Chris against Carolina," Gibbs said. "He's got a feel for that inside. We haven't been doing as well when he gets out of the pocket. I'm convinced he can do that, but it's a matter of us continuing to do that. First of all, it's what he likes and when you have success doing something, you kind of want to go back to that."
On the next play, Campbell faked a handoff to Ladell Betts, rolled to his right and threw deep down the right seam into the end zone to Moss for a 31-yard touchdown.
"That opens up our passing game and our play action. When you can do play action and have success with it, it helps open up the run game," Campbell said of the long play-action pass. "It works hand in hand. It makes you not one-dimensional. We can do both run and pass. That is what is going to help make us a great offense. We just have to continue to keep working and doing those things well."
It was the kind of play the Redskins can call with Campbell at quarterback. Campbell's desire to throw the ball down the middle of the field is a departure from Brunell, who was successful throwing deep into coverage but was reluctant to attempt deep middle routes.
"Whatever your history is will dictate you falling into that pattern. You know, Mark had completed 65 percent of his passes," said Al Saunders, the Redskins' associate head coach-offense. "He wasn't turning the ball over and was doing a real good job of managing the game in the way it was asked of him.
"When Mark was playing, people were playing a lot of cover-2 on us and we were as consistent in the run game. Clinton [Portis] was playing some of the time and Ladell was playing some of the time. There was no rhythm to our run game, and our offensive line wasn't as consistent. Now, we've got a rhythm going."
Gibbs said the Redskins' offense has not been tailored for Campbell, but that the desire to throw the ball down the middle of the field merely represents a difference in quarterback personality.
"Some quarterbacks have a better feel. If you watch Jason, the last couple of weeks, he's hit the deep stuff," Gibbs said. "If I'm going to pick something for the quarterback to be -- and Mark was pretty good at the deep stuff, too; I think last year from 30 yards or better we were third or fourth in the league -- I'd say the most important thing is to throw deep.
"I mentioned Mark Rypien earlier. Mark could throw a deep ball. His sideline ball wobbled and he didn't look real pretty and all that kind of stuff, but that man hit deep stuff."
Campbell has impressed his coach, especially because with the prevalence of the cover-2 defense, the middle is the open area.
"In order to maximize what you do offensively, you need to be able to stretch the field vertically and you need to be able to stretch the field laterally," Saunders said. "And for the last four to five weeks, our run game is to the point where we feel like we have a consistency of what we're doing, and we've got a running back that is consistent.
"You'd like to put the threat into the defense that you can go deep. And if you don't do that, then they don't have to play it. Typically, you'd like to do it early in the game and you'd like to do it as often as you can."
Starting safety Vernon Fox said he understood the threat of throwing down the middle of the field. As a weapon, even incompletions can send a message.
"As a safety, you're hesitant, because they're running the ball down your throat and at the same time chucking the ball downfield," he said. "It's awesome to see our offense do it. I looked at their safeties last week and I would have hated to be those guys. Not only did they have to make tons of tackles, but we had all the time in the world to throw the ball."