By Mike Wise
Monday, September 10, 2007
It was already past 4 p.m, still hot, sticky and undecided. No matter. They rose in unison. Ninety-thousand, standing to see the kid in the crucible.
Jason Campbell vs. the Miami Dolphins' malicious defense, pro football's fourth-best unit a year ago. In overtime.
The situation was third and seven from the Washington 43-yard-line, and the prospect of giving the ball back -- and perhaps the game -- was one bad decision away. So who would take the snap under center?
The unruffled, grounded guy who, at times, smartly managed the game? Or the thrill-seeker already intercepted twice, picked off more by his own impetuousness than Miami?
What a defining moment this would be. As one-game referendums around here go, if Campbell was ready and right then, by extension, his team was ready and right.
If a young quarterback could overcome two interceptions, the occasional brainlock in the pocket and having his favorite wide receiver taken away from him for 60-plus minutes -- if Campbell could rebound from all that in his first September start in the NFL -- the remaining 15 games held so much more promise than the usual chat-room doom.
He saw the blitz coming from the strong side, barely dropped back and threw toward tight end Chris Cooley, running a look-in pattern. Cooley had been blanketed all afternoon, held without a reception. Worse yet, Campbell had forced his first pass to Cooley and it ended up in the hands of the wrong team.
Not this time. Ten yards. First down. Enough breathing room for Clinton Portis and Ladell Betts to carry him home.
Poised Jason 16, Impulsive Jason 13.
The mature Campbell won out over the relatively inexperienced Campbell as much as the Redskins won out over the Dolphins yesterday. In a game absolutely critical to the confidence of a 25-year-old, third-year quarterback, Campbell played maestro when it mattered, guiding Washington 58 yards on its first possession after the Redskins won the overtime coin flip.
It doesn't happen, of course, unless Portis churned all his pent-up feelings of persecution into every one of his 98 yards. If Campbell or any of Portis's teammates every truly wondered, "C.P. are you with me?" Portis answered affirmatively after he took his first handoff in 10 months. Portis -- and Betts, to a lesser extent -- enabled Campbell to be less than great but still win.
Portis didn't play with a chip on his shoulder, as he said in an almost uncomfortable postgame news conference, in which the media laughed at his remarks and Portis did not. Instead, standing there unsmiling, he appeared to have a refrain in his brain: "You think I'm done, don't you? Don't you!?"
Much like the quarterback with whom he teamed with for the time in the Redskins' starting backfield, Portis had something to prove.
"His poise," Portis said of Campbell, when asked what represented the quarterback's best quality. He said he told Campbell in the huddle after each of his two interceptions, "Forget about it and let's go right here."
Campbell obliged. The numbers were less spectacular -- 12 of 21 for 222 yards, two interceptions and no touchdown passes -- than the triumph over his evil, hellion twin. Next to the stable person he locked in the closet for about a quarter, that cat is dangerous.
Impulsive Jason saw a well-covered Brandon Lloyd streaking toward the end zone and, when every instinct should have told him not to throw within 20 yards of Lloyd, Campbell lofted a sweet-looking spiral. To Travis Daniels. Of Miami. Daniels had deep and inside position on Lloyd, but Campbell went there anyway.
Impulsive Jason also looked for Cooley when he wasn't there, lamenting later, "they had guys on top of him, a guy under him." His flaw from last season, waiting too long in the pocket, also came back to bite him a few times in the first half.
But Poised Jason emerged more often. He was the guy who made a smart little underneath throw to Antwaan Randle El, keeping a drive alive in the third quarter.
Poised Jason recognized Jason Taylor blowing smoke, stepped around the clutching Dolphins defensive end and scrambled brilliantly for 12 yards in the fourth quarter.
That's the guy who found Santana Moss with one of the prettiest fly-pattern spirals you'll ever see. More important than that pass, Poised Jason at times threw away the ball rather than throw to one of his shadowed receivers.
His most important decision of the afternoon? A timeout before the key throw to Cooley. Coach Joe Gibbs's play-caller, Al Saunders, commended Campbell afterward for calling the timeout after the quarterback had noticed Cooley was out of position.
"You win with the quarterback who manages the game," said Gregg Williams, the defensive boss responsible for Trent Green's happy feet and harried throws. "I hope you guys got to see just how well he managed that overtime."
"Unflappable is the word that comes to me," said Pete Kendall, the recently acquired offensive guard from the Jets who has played in front of some great and fairly good quarterbacks in his career. (Warren Moon, Chad Pennington, John Friesz, Jake Plummer and Jon Kitna among them).
"Whether it's practice or on the field in the middle of the game, he just moves on to the next one," Kendall said. "Of all the guys I've played with, I'm impressed with his poise. It's a great trait for a young quarterback to have."
Bottom line, there are 14-10 and 17-14 games to be won on this schedule. In a way, a blueprint for the season was hatched against the Dolphins:
Bend-don't-break defense and strong special-teams play meshed with Campbell guiding a functional offense -- an offense more intent on not giving away the game than winning any office fantasy league titles.
Losing Jon Jansen for maybe the entire season is undeniably a blow. But, with all respect to the straight-shooting, dignified veteran who deserves much better, it's not as devastating as losing Jansen three years ago to a ruptured Achilles' tendon. The Redskins are more in a position to adapt and move forward than in 2004.
Take yesterday, when Campbell put aside his early mistakes and showed enough maturity to win his first season opener as a starter.
"Hopefully we got somebody there who can be a leader for a long time," Gibbs said afterward.
If Poised Jason can lock Impulsive Jason in the closet, bet on it.