By Mike Wise
Sunday, September 9, 2007
Of all the impressions made on a young NFL quarterback, none was stronger than the day a bull-rushing lineman from the past came up to Jason Campbell and his parents after services.
Charles Mann, now the head usher at Grace Covenant Church in Chantilly, spoke to the Campbells for about an hour a few months ago "about what Redskin football meant to the old guys and how bad they want to see us winning again," Campbell said.
"He said when they used to play they had an attitude about themselves," he said. "They didn't want to be embarrassed, first of all. And second of all, they didn't want to accept defeat.
"Then he showed us his broken fingers."
Some messages about sacrifice only come through a disturbing visual.
The ring finger on Mann's left hand, a crushed knuckle suffered in 1983, is bent completely sideways. The pinkie, ring and middle fingers on both hands are distorted, mangled and painful reminders -- along with his 15 knee operations -- of a playing career that featured four Super Bowls and five NFC championship games.
"He had fingers turning east, west and all kind of ways," Campbell said. "My mom looked at his hand and said, 'I hope you're not like that when you're finished playing football.' "
"I asked him, 'God, how did you get that?' " said Larry Campbell, Jason's father. "Charles Mann just looked at me and said, 'Driving the quarterback to the ground.' "
If there is a revival, let it be known that it began at a house of worship. On Easter Sunday.
Jason Campbell represented hope. Charles Mann represented history. And somewhere between the floundering organization the Redskins have become and the glorious franchise they were, a link was found.
"I told Jason what I tell a lot of the players, that there was a certain level of prestige, a certain level of mystique, that came with being a Redskin player," Mann said. "It meant a lot. And over the years, that mystique has simmered down because of the way things have gone the past eight or nine years.
"It has to change back. You don't need to win a Super Bowl today, but teams need to know this is our house. You can't come in, walk all over us and keep going. That's not what it is to play for this franchise.' "
Gone, this afternoon, is the stench of 5-11. Today, Joe Gibbs has another blank slate -- 0-0.
And for all the concern about a revamped offensive line finding cohesion early, whether Clinton Portis still has magic in his legs, whether last year's defensive meltdown was an aberration or an awful sign of the times, the future really comes down to how a 25-year-old, third-year player from the hamlet of Taylorsville, Miss., adjusts to prime time on a full-time basis.
When Campbell takes his first snap under center against the Miami Dolphins sometime after 1 p.m. today, the Redskins' 10th quarterback change in eight years hopes to accomplish at least one huge feat: becoming the first quarterback to begin and finish as the starter since Brad Johnson in 1999.
The season doesn't completely rise and fall on Campbell. Indeed, the pressure to put up big numbers won't be as crucial as Campbell learning to manage a game and being functional enough to simply win. Yet no single player will have more to do with whether Gibbs returns to coach the last season of his contract next year. After Gibbs, no one will be more responsible for a playoff revival.
In six months or less, the reverberations of Campbell's progress and development will be felt all over the organization.
Which is only fitting.
Because when it came to plucking the kid the Redskins hoped would be their long-term solution at quarterback in 2005, they were all in it to begin with.
Vinny Cerrato inadvertently began his homework on Campbell before he had any idea the team wanted him. Campbell's agent, Joel Segal, asked the Redskins' vice president of football operations to ride with him and Campbell's parents to Senior Bowl practices. Every day in that car, Cerrato learned what a formidable family the Campbells were.
"I didn't know that until after they drafted me, but he had already figured out my background, everything," Campbell said. "He was basically doing a dissection of the whole family."
The next key moment came in the film room at Redskins Park, where the scouts and the offensive coaches viewed footage of all quarterbacks in the 2005 draft, including Alex Smith, who was taken No. 1 by San Francisco, and Aaron Rodgers, who went 24th to Green Bay, one spot ahead of Campbell.
"He looked so good we finally had the video guy put all his passes on one tape," Cerrato recalled. "Everybody couldn't believe it. We finally said, 'Let's watch the USC-Auburn game in Auburn, where they got beat.'
"He threw a pick down by the goal line, but it wasn't his fault. He actually played good in that game. We ended up watching about six, seven hours of tape and realized he just didn't throw many bad balls. He was just accurate. All the time."
Segal was telephoned that evening, and Gibbs, Cerrato, offensive coordinator Don Breaux and offensive assistant Jack Burns arranged an 8 a.m. interview the next day at Auburn. Campbell already had been there since 7:15 a.m., preparing for his chalk talk.
For two hours, his faculties were put to the task on that board, from the intricacies of pass protection to the most basic question of all from a drawn-up play: "What would you do here?"
Campbell fairly aced Gibbs's own football IQ exam.
"On the way back, we called Denver and completed the trade so we could move up and get him," Cerrato said. "We were holding our breath because it got out that we went down there and everybody knew if you wanted him you had to get him before number 25."
The rest was gravy. Just like his neighbor Brett Favre, another small-town Mississippi quarterback with a twang, Campbell would be playing in a signature NFL city. Campbell's father, who had put 197,000 miles on his '96 Toyota Avalon during his son's standout career at Auburn, actually hopped aboard the first airplane in his life to watch his son sign his contract.
"Tennessee and Florida were the furthest trips I took with the car before Mr. Snyder sent that plane," Larry Campbell said by telephone from Mississippi on Thursday night.
As Gibbs vacillated between Mark Brunell and Patrick Ramsey, patience became Jason's first virtue in the NFL. But after holding the clipboard for most of two seasons, he finally got his shot midway through last season.
By season's end, Campbell became entrusted with the job of resuscitating the franchise for which Charles Mann and others once sacrificed cartilage and bone.
"Yeah, I showed them my jacked-up fingers," Mann said by telephone when asked about his after-church conversation with the Campbells back in April. "The only ones not distorted are the thumb and the index fingers.
"Would I do it all over again if I knew this was the result? Yes."
Said Campbell: "At first, they looked so bad I didn't want to see. But it shows you what guys like that went through to win, how much they wanted it, how together they were.
"When they played in a game, it was like, 'I'm your brother's keeper.' When he was done talking to my parents, I thought to myself, 'That's got to be us.' "