By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 15, 2007
A year ago, Washington Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell met one of his idols, Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, for the first time, a memorable moment in a whirlwind season for him. Since then, Campbell has become Washington's starter and now, as he prepares to face McNabb for the first time Monday night, the Pro Bowler's words of advice from last year are as salient as ever.
"When I first came out of college, Donovan told me he watched all my college games and was very proud of the way I handled myself as a quarterback," said Campbell, who was recruited by Syracuse while McNabb was starring there. "And I got a chance to meet him last year and got a chance to exchange numbers, and he told me about taking everything one step at a time, one game at a time."
While Campbell is enthused by his performance late in last week's season-opening victory over the Miami Dolphins, he realizes the outing confirmed he still has much in which to improve. But he is trying not to harp on the two interceptions he threw against the Dolphins and the few passes that sailed. Instead, he is taking McNabb's words of encouragement to heart ahead of his national unveiling on "Monday Night Football."
"When you're a young quarterback, you're going to have some highs and lows, and you've got to keep sticking with it," Campbell said. "That's all part of it."
Campbell, 25, who has strong relationships with the other black quarterbacks in the NFL, including Steve McNair in Baltimore and Vince Young in Tennessee, hopes to one day achieve a level of play and professionalism that has defined McNabb's eight-plus seasons. He shares an aura of cool confidence and outward humility with McNabb, 30, as well as a sturdy frame, nimble legs, quick instincts and a strong arm.
They plan to chat on the field before and after the game Monday. Campbell had hoped to spend a few weeks at McNabb's offseason home in Arizona this offseason -- he had been invited to an annual passing camp there -- but McNabb's season-ending knee injury last year forced a cancellation. The invitation is likely to be extended again next year.
Campbell's performance Sunday -- 12 for 21 for 222 yards and a 54.2 passer rating -- was not uncommon for a novice passer, and those stats belie a handful of astute decisions that helped secure the Redskins' 16-13 victory.
"I'm hard on myself as quarterback," Campbell said. "I thought I had a pretty good game, but those two interceptions blow everything else away."
The first interception, on Campbell's first pass of the game, was a mistake, and Campbell knew it the instant the ball rolled off his fingers. Tight end Chris Cooley, a favorite target, was covered by two Dolphins and Campbell locked on to Cooley's route, telegraphing the pass.
"He came to the sideline and said, 'I know exactly what I should have done and I didn't do it,' " Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs said "You watch him and he does not get flustered, which is a great sign for a quarterback."
On the other interception early in the fourth quarter, Washington wide receiver Brandon Lloyd's effort to reach the jump ball was far exceeded by that of Dolphins defensive back Travis Daniels, who was barely challenged.
"On the one-on-one down the sidelines to Lloyd, you're not expecting those balls to get intercepted," Campbell said. "You're giving the receiver an opportunity to make a play, or it gets broken up. But those things happen sometimes, and those are the things they talked to me about. And I'm still encouraged because sometimes it's not going to be a perfect game, but you go back and watch tape and see 10 or 15 things you did to help the team win."
Campbell delivered two well-thrown passes on deep fades to Antwaan Randle El, who finished the game with five catches for a career-best 162 yards. And on third and seven late in the third quarter, with speedy Dolphins end Jason Taylor, the reigning NFL defensive player of the year, sprinting untouched up the middle of the field, Campbell raced to the sideline for a 12-yard gain.
"He's another year older in that offense, and it shows," Eagles Coach Andy Reid said. "It looks like he's got good command of it and he made some nice throws on the move."
Campbell's greatest moment came in overtime, on third and seven from the Redskins 43. The Dolphins brought an all-out blitz looking for a game-changing turnover or stop, and Campbell read the play perfectly. He had two "hots" on the play -- safety-value short routes to bail him out under duress -- and correctly chose the best alternative. Cooley slanted inside after lining up toward the right sideline, and the pass led Cooley enough to let him plunge for 10 yards, prolonging what would become the game-winning drive.
"The other 'hot' there was [tight end Todd] Yoder, but he probably would have got hit and stopped short," said Campbell, who could see things develop with his 6-foot-5 height. "And once I saw that linebacker vacate his spot I knew Cooley was an ideal target to hit, and get him on the run, and he did an outstanding job of getting the first down for us."
That decision had associate head coach Al Saunders beaming in the film room this week.
"That really demonstrated his growth," Saunders said. "And if you can run six-man protections and five-man protections in a very, very critical part of the game, especially on third downs when they're bringing extra rushers, then your opportunity to grow in the passing game is dramatic. I told the team and I told Jason in our meeting, 'There's your quarterback growing.' That was the big play of the game. We don't win the game maybe if he doesn't do that."
Campbell is likely to face such aggressive blitzing with regularity Monday against the Eagles.
NFL scouts say Campbell still must improve his footwork and accuracy on intermediate routes, and deliver the ball quicker. But at least one top NFL personnel executive, speaking anonymously because it is against team policy to publicly critique other teams' players, said he already is convinced that Campbell will be a franchise quarterback. Many around Redskins Park would tend to agree.
"He's only going to get better and better," Saunders said. "And it was only his eighth start and he only threw 27 passes all preseason because he was hurt. He's still in a growth process, but a great kid to work with. He's going to hit some speed bumps, but with the way he's going he'll fly over those."