By Mike Wise
Sunday, August 12, 2007
The first hint of trouble for Jason Campbell came from the left side of the line, just the place his coaches were worried sick about. He never saw Vincent Fuller barreling in from the outside, never saw the blitzing safety who leveled him and dislodged the football from his hands. Stephon Heyer blocked his man inside, but the undrafted rookie left tackle had no help on the outside. Miscommunication.
"I feel good," Campbell said, "except when I got hit in the chin."
There would be another lost fumble, a few errant passes and several stalled drives in seven offensive series in the first half. There was also grit in the pocket and several nice completions under duress. And the overall impression that the Redskins' starting quarterback, like his team, is a work in progress with more than enough to be concerned about after the first preseason game, a 14-6 victory over the Tennessee Titans.
The first-team offense went oh for the preseason a year ago, failing to muster any points for creativity or on the scoreboard. What a harbinger of lousy things to come that became. Among the doomsayers back home, there had to be a few refrains of "Here we go again."
But in Campbell's case, at least, let's not be rash.
He made nice throws on a couple of third-down plays, checked down and found his backs when no one else was open. After the fumble, he came back to loft a pretty 39-yard spiral down the right sideline, just within the grasp of Santana Moss's fingertips. He stood firm in the face of a rush, made a daring scramble to avoid another sack and set up a field goal attempt.
Courage in the pocket -- overall resilience -- wasn't the problem. Pass protection is another story.
One of the more telling decisions made by the Redskins was to keep tight end Chris Cooley in to block instead of run routes. It was reminiscent of the first part of last season when the Redskins had so little confidence in their offensive line to stem the rush and right tackle Jon Jansen was believed to need help. When Cooley's catch-and-run abilities aren't utilized, the Redskins become a much more limited offensive team and another of Campbell's weapons is taken away.
Maybe that's what a coach has to do with his line when left tackle Chris Samuels goes down to injury for a month and the quarterback's blind side is not covered. But putting that kind of responsibility on Heyer -- along with teaching Todd Wade how to play guard after being a tackle his entire career -- is a large gamble in relation to the Redskins' larger goal the next few weeks.
Coach Joe Gibbs wants Campbell to feel confidence and comfort that carry into the regular season, a confidence Mark Brunell never felt as he tried to learn Al Saunders's incredibly intricate offense last season. It was obvious last night in the way the Redskins called a timeout to ensure Campbell had another series before the first half ended.
Gibbs said he wanted Campbell and the offense to "get more of a groove," and acknowledged he would have taken his starter out sooner had the Redskins motored downfield for scores early on. "I think it was a rough start for Jason, he'd probably tell you that," Gibbs said, conceding that he was disappointed with the running game and the pass protection.
Campbell wasn't too harsh on himself. "I probably need to protect the football better when I'm about to get hit," he said. He called the mistakes "correctible," and said his main frustration was not being able to sustain drives into the red zone.
It's clear Gibbs wants Campbell to feel a rhythm and connection with his line and his receiving corps that will put the 25-year-old at ease in a month.
But is that possible with a Band-Aid offensive line? If this protection problem isn't remedied soon, the larger issue is whether the Redskins are in danger of messing with Campbell's confidence more than building it up.
Unlike much of the team's fan base and some of its veteran players, Campbell doesn't grasp what it means to lose often. He doesn't understand tradition as something talked about in past tense. From the state championships he won in Taylorsville, Miss., to his undefeated season at Auburn, he has only known winning. Everywhere he's gone. Including on this very field. On New Year's Eve 2003, he was named MVP of the Music City Bowl after taking Auburn down the field in the fourth quarter to beat Wisconsin.
Even his first Redskins season ended with his team in the second round of the NFC playoffs, two wins short of the Super Bowl. He didn't look at last season's losses as a predictable demise in the franchise's recent history; losing pained him.
"Last year was the first time really going through something called losing," he said recently. "That just didn't fit well. There were times when I couldn't sleep at night when we were losing those close games. I was like, 'What's going on? What's happening to us?' We lost to Philly, 21-19, we lost to St. Louis, 37-31, and the Giants, 34-28, and then we were up on Atlanta 14-0 and we lost that game. I couldn't take it."
He added, "I feel like all that happened for a reason, all of it happened to prepare us for something greater."
Campbell has the tools to put up big numbers. One of his largest challenges is to walk the line between playing the manage-the-clock game that Saunders and Gibbs want vs. the scrambling, everybody-go-deep game of which he is capable. There are times when he will have to sacrifice his athleticism for a later day to ensure victory today. That should be one of his main worries, not whether he's going to have his clock cleaned in the preseason.
How much can be gleaned from one preseason game is up for much debate. But one thing is certain after a shaky opener in Nashville:
Jason Campbell's development may hinge less on him and more on what his coaches and teammates can do to help him stay healthy and productive the next few weeks. It's not on him right now; it's on them.