By Thomas Boswell
Sunday, August 19, 2007
The stadium holds more than 90,000 people. The team that plays there is valued at about $1.4 billion. The coach is in the Hall of Fame. The fireworks, explosions and scoreboard cacophony could drown out a revolution.
However, with 4 minutes 45 second left in the first quarter last night at FedEx Field, all of that pomp and violence, grace and glamour, seemed to dematerialize, to disappear in an instant, and all that mattered was Jason Campbell's left knee.
Sometimes, in the blink of a blindside roughing-the-passer attack, you realize that a player's career, a team's season, even Joe Gibbs's legacy in his second tour of duty in town all can hinge on the ligaments in the joint of one 25-year-old quarterback.
This time, the knee held together. Campbell rolled on the ground in pain as teammates and trainers gathered around in a tight circle of concern. The silence in the huge stadium was louder than the noise that preceded it. Throughout the Washington area, TV replays showed a huge hit -- a 285-pound, human missile named Brett Keisel aimed at the back of Campbell's knee -- that seemed at first glance to portend the words "out for the season."
"That's your dreaded fear," said Gibbs, who was especially worried because the Redskins' coaches upstairs relayed word that Campbell had taken "a real good shot." That's coachspeak for "brace yourself for the worst."
"It was scary. We were all holding our breath on the sideline, saying, 'Please get up,' " defensive end Phillip Daniels said. "That's our year lying there. We've got to have him. Then we let out one big sigh of relief."
This time, Campbell was spared the kind of injury that often erases a year and can alter a career. After a few minutes on the ground, he slowly limped off the field, implacably listening to the vigorous apologies of Keisel, who walked beside him, trying to convince everyone that his play, though penalized, wasn't dirty.
The defensive end sprung off the ground from all fours and dived full length, driving his shoulder and full weight into the side of Campbell's knee, crumpling it at a gruesome angle as the quarterback toppled backward, his foot and knee trapped under him. As Keisel begged forgiveness, he might as well have held up a sign: "Please don't put out a hit on No. 99."
"Low blow, man," Daniels said. "He's going to get fined for sure. I want to see it again [on tape], but it looked like it could have been avoided. He knows it's [only] preseason."
After being examined early in the second quarter, Campbell was able to walk gingerly to the locker room, waving a towel to the crowd to let them know he was all right. Later, he returned to the sideline wearing a large ice pack on his left knee. The diagnosis, a mere bruised knee, sounded almost bizarrely mild. Either he's made of titanium or he's mighty lucky.
Some very small chance remains that Campbell's injury could be worse than is now assumed. But doctors have said, according to Gibbs: "Everything is fine. Everything [in his knee] is tight."
"I was fortunate enough that my foot was able to move a little bit and that kept it from being stiff-planted in the grass. It probably saved me from getting an ACL or MCL tear," Campbell said. "I didn't know for sure until I put all my weight on it."
For the Redskins, Campbell is not only the present but the hinge to the future, the joint through which the Gibbs school of Redskins football is to be transmitted to the next generation of players. Behind Campbell, there is 14-year veteran Mark Brunell, who was benched last year; Todd Collins, who hasn't started an NFL game since 1997; and a rookie named Jordan Somebody.
So when Campbell returned to the field in an approximately ambulatory state, this whole city could uncross its fingers. Nothing in this town is anticipated on an annual basis like the start of a new Redskins season. Not the Fourth of July on the Mall or the cherry blossoms or the State of the Union speech. Only an inauguration, every four years, tops it. It's been that way since my dad was a fan of Sammy Baugh in the '30s and '40s to the present, when my son knows the number of days until the season opener.
Now the fine frenzy, the fall foolishness, the football fetish, can begin again. Instead of 19 weeks of "Isn't it terrible about Jason?" we have the Redskins on our plates until Dec. 30, unless they reach the playoffs. See how quickly moods can change?
Why, on the play on which Campbell was almost hurt, he managed to heave a deep pass down the middle an instant before he was hit for a 29-yard gain to Chris Cooley. That eventually set up a seven-yard touchdown pass from Collins to Brandon Lloyd for the Redskins' only touchdown in a 12-10 loss.
Perhaps, more than any other quality, sports fans are defined by their defiant resilience. "Wait till next year" is the core of our catechism. Last night, long before the game, the big-wheel trucks bore their Redskin flags, snapping in the balmy summer evening breeze. The tailgate parties started almost as early as if this were the regular season, rather than just the home exhibition opener. Fans by the tens of thousands wore their colors, their favorite-player jerseys and their maroon-and-gold ball caps turned backward. Plenty of Steelers fans also insinuated themselves into the throng of 69,322.
So another home Redskins season begins -- three weeks before an official game is even played -- with an electricity that has been felt by succeeding generations since the Redskins arrived from Boston. The tingle is always the same. This season, however, arrives with a blend of anticipation and anxiety that Washington may never have experienced. In the last half-century, the single most respected and estimable Redskin has been Gibbs.
Now, in the fourth season of his return, Redskins fans have no idea what will happen next in the team's obsessively followed saga. No one predicted the 6-10, 10-6, 5-11 records since Gibbs return. Either success (he's a great coach) or failure (he's been away too long) would have seemed reasonable. But a playoff victory followed by sudden collapse, even as the team spent millions on free agents and glamour coaches, has defied every expectation.
As a result of this perverse progression, fans can imagine almost any fate for this season's team. That wide range of possibilities, from vindication for a fine man to something that tastes like undeserved embarrassment, gives this season its extra dose of adrenalin.
One player, more than any other, will determine which direction this franchise takes. He wears No. 17 and, for several minutes last night, it looked as if his left knee might be in tatters. Instead, Campbell walked away unhurt, like a NASCAR driver from a five-flip 10-car crash.
Once, when he was a young coach, Gibbs had an all-pro quarterback whose career was ended by a famous injury. Then, Gibbs had the time to replace Joe Theismann with Doug Williams and, later, Mark Rypien, and win two more Super Bowls.
Now, at 66, Gibbs is short on time. He has one more chance left to build a formidable team. Thanks to a strong knee and a little luck, he's going to take his shot with the quarterback of his choice -- Jason Campbell, a fellow who still has two legs.