By Mike Wise
Sunday, July 29, 2007
You know the last time a Washington Redskins quarterback who began the season as the starter finished as the starter?
"When was that?" Jason Campbell asked.
Brad Johnson, 1999.
"That's ironic because I talked to Brad Johnson in the Grand Caymans this summer for an hour."
"We were out by the pool," Campbell said. "He was playing with his kids, telling me about the year they went to the playoffs that year. He told me he feels like, just from things he's been watching, that we're going to turn things around."
We were in a car on the way back to the Redskins' living quarters on the second day of training camp in Ashburn. I had taken this same ride with Patrick Ramsey two years ago when Joe Gibbs dubbed Ramsey, another youngster with a cannon of a right arm, his team's unquestioned starter. I had sat down with Mark Brunell a year ago after he was named the unquestioned starter. Dating from Johnson and on to Jeff George, Tony Banks and beyond, I'm guessing they all believed they were the one at some point, the next Jurgensen, Kilmer or Theismann.
But in the eight seasons since Johnson passed for more than 4,000 yards and 24 touchdowns, there have been 10 changes at the position. As believing and genuine as the 25-year-old kid from Taylorsville, Miss., sounds, what makes Campbell immune to recent history? At some point, he's got to hear the unrealistic chatter about the season riding on his young shoulders.
"Is it on you?" I asked, like any caller from Miserable Suburban Guy radio might.
"I don't feel like it's on me," he said. "But that's the way it's always been. People always say, 'It all depends on the quarterback,' but you need a team doing their job also. So you can't put that kind of pressure on yourself to think you can go out there and win games [alone]."
That last line is a telling statement. The problem with Ramsey, I always felt, was that he truly believed his failure at any crucial moment was going to lead to the season blowing up because of him. He tried to play it off, but he always had this weight-on-his-shoulders feel to his game and his demeanor.
Maybe the worst thing that can happen to this team as they attempt to rebound from an 11-loss eyesore is for anyone to put the season's outcome solely on Campbell's conscience.
People have to learn to manage their expectations of Campbell like Campbell has to learn how to manage a football game. His only worry should be about marshaling his team forward. He's often going to have to rein in his talent to ensure his development.
Efficiency rather than electricity, that whole move-the-chains game that Gibbs loves and has won with in the past.
Johnson told Campbell that, too, when they sat down this summer at a quarterback challenge in the Caribbean.
"He was very helpful," he said. "He's like: 'Even though it's your third year and you haven't had a whole lot of experience, don't try to take the pressure that everybody is trying to put on you, that you're the reason why everybody is going to win games. Don't do that. You're still a young quarterback, but you can be a winner.' "
Johnson also told him: "I know it was tough last year, but that happens at this level. But just turn it around and help the team turn it around."
Said Campbell: "He's like, 'Just build the guys.' He said the year they went to the playoffs they went through ups and downs but they won as a whole team."
Campbell's obsession with learning Al Saunders's playbook and putting in the hours during the offseason has been well-documented. He said he went home to Mississippi for a mere five days, where he slept, ate good barbeque and knocked on Brett Favre's door to see if the legend of Hattiesburg was home.
After he was drafted, Campbell bought a home for his mother and father about a mile from Favre's house. Campbell's father, now retired, sometimes works as a teacher's assistant and had Favre's daughter in class one day.
When he was a junior in high school, Campbell worked out with Favre and an athletic trainer during the summer. This summer he wanted to catch up with Favre, whom he had not had an opportunity to speak to in person for a while.
"I went to his house but you can't get to it," Campbell said. "You have this gate about 300 yards long surrounding his house. I called from the call box. I tried to get in but no one was home to answer."
Presumably, he wanted to ask Favre about what to expect going into the season as a starter. Or maybe how to conquer America's most popular sport when you come from a backwoods nook and cranny that has 7,000 people and five stores.
The good thing for Campbell is, he doesn't have to be Brett Favre tomorrow. The hope that he is going to be good or even great this season is misplaced. He needs to be stable and they'll have a shot. If he was so fortunate to complete 61 percent of his passes and have a 2-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio, that might be good enough for 10-6 and the playoffs.
After 10 changes in eight seasons at quarterback, Jason Campbell should know: being Brad Johnson today is okay.