By Thomas Boswell
Tuesday, September 25, 2007
To a cynic, experience is "the name everyone gives to their mistakes." However, to Redskins fans, as they watch the encouraging but erratic development of Jason Campbell, another aphorism applies better: "Experience is what you get when you don't get what you want." The Redskins got plenty of what they didn't want on Sunday against the Giants.
From the moment the Redskins switched quarterbacks from fading Mark Brunell to the gifted but green Campbell in last season's 10th game, they knew they were buying into the possibility of games like their 24-17 loss at FedEx Field. There's a price that must be paid for watching Campbell's emerging talent. Both his promise and his flaws were on display in the game's final two minutes -- almost everything that the 25-year-old does best, as well as much that he has not mastered.
In just 62 brilliant seconds, coming out of the two-minute warning, Campbell showed much of what he may someday become. Few Redskins quarterbacks have thrown four better clutch passes in so short a span. Looking unflappable, almost relaxed, the 6-foot-5, 233-pounder with the powerhouse arm fired perfect passes for gains of 25, 18, 15 and 20 yards.
First, on third and 11, he connected deep over the middle to Antwaan Randle El for 25 yards, placing the pass where only his teammate could catch it with a sliding grab. When that play was negated by a holding penalty, Campbell topped himself, drilling Santana Moss deep over the center for 18 yards on a desperately needed third-and-21 play to the Giants 28-yard line. That streaking pass triangulated its way between three Giants.
Facing a game-on-the-line fourth and eight, Campbell felt pressure in the pocket and checked down perfectly, hitting Moss in stride for a 15-yard pass and run. Then, after the embarrassment of taking a sack when a mistimed snap hit him directly in the chest as he was studying the Giants' defense, Campbell produced his most elegant moment. With his own teammates seemingly bent on undermining him, Campbell converted a third and 13, unleashing a dart that practically wedged itself in Randle El's facemask for a 20-yard gain to the 1-yard line. When Randle El came to the turf, four Giants surrounded him -- a blink too late.
Those four passes, each under enormous pressure, each in a brutal down-and-distance situation, and every one the kind of pass that no other Redskins quarterback currently has in his repertoire, are the reason Campbell is the Redskins' future and, perhaps someday, the team's best quarterback since Mark Rypien in the early 1990s. In fact, Campbell didn't even get to showcase his flashiest forte at game's end -- an uncanny touch on deep balls that already mirrors Doug Williams's. As yet, he doesn't have the variety of deep trajectories -- "air under the ball" -- that made Sonny Jurgensen a magnificent piece of chubby performance art.
However, 58 seconds was left. One yard still remained to be gained. And "experience" was about to arrive.
After spiking the ball, the Redskins called a play-action pass in the right flat to 284-pound Mike Sellers. For the third time on this same pattern Sunday, Campbell delivered the ball both a beat late and behind his receiver. A quicker on-target pass would've tied the game. Thus, Campbell's biggest weakness was exposed -- inaccuracy. He still misses his mark too often by too much. For every gasp, he also produces a groan. It's not just flat passes that bug him. Quick outs -- dangerous patterns -- sometimes arrive late and beg to be intercepted. Also, when forced to his left by the Giants, Campbell found it hard to square his shoulders to the line of scrimmage on the run and hit his man consistently. It's a scourge of tall passers, which he shares.
On Sunday, Campbell completed 16 of 34 passes, bringing his 10-game career percentage to 52.9 percent, far from the 60 percent level of the best quarterbacks. With two touchdown passes, against three interceptions, this season, Campbell's quarterback rating is a mediocre 69.6, compared with his 76.5 mark last season. Brunell's day is long past, but his career completion percentage is 59.6 and his rating is 84.2 with only one season under 82.0 since '94.
Most quarterbacks become a bit more accurate with time and Campbell will probably improve enough, too. However, his inexperience was most costly on the Redskins' last offensive play. It may have cost them the game. With 47 seconds left, Ladell Betts was stopped inside the Giants 1-yard line. The Redskins faced fourth down with no timeouts and the clock running. Campbell knew the play; he'd been given the final two plays after the Sellers incompletion. As the Redskins hurried to the line of scrimmage, Fox Sports analyst Troy Aikman identified the fatal problem as it was transpiring. "There's plenty of time," the Hall of Fame quarterback said. "There's no rush and yet everybody [for Washington] is rushing."
Led by Campbell, the Redskins dashed to the line of scrimmage and snapped the ball almost as quickly as possible, initiating a play that was a complete mess. Betts tripped over his own blocker. A swarm of Giants engulfed him for a loss. Yet the Redskins still had more than 15 seconds left on the play clock -- enough time for Peyton Manning to switch his car insurance to Geico. Even his brother, the Giants' Eli Manning, who led New York's 21-0 second-half comeback, could have ordered a six-course meal and pointed to every Redskins linebacker individually if he'd had such an abundance of time.
"They botched it," said Fox commentator Jimmy Johnson, the ex-Dallas coach, after the game. "With a veteran quarterback, maybe he could have spread [his linemen] out. You know Joe Gibbs wants to run on the goal line . . . but doing it from a tight formation you are playing right into the Giants' hand. Spread 'em out, do a check [with the coach]. If they spread out with you, run the ball. If they don't, go ahead and throw it."
Someday, such vital nuances will be second nature to Campbell, even in the midst of chaos. But will Gibbs still be around as Redskins coach to enjoy the work of his finished product?
"It's a down day, a tough one for all of us," Gibbs said yesterday. For Campbell, he had only praise. "I was pleased to see him handle the two-minute drill that well," Gibbs said. "Certainly, in this one, Jason did a great job of getting us downfield."
Someday, a more polished Campbell will not only get the team downfield, but in the end zone, too. But no one knows when. Until then, the Redskins will have days like Sunday when what they get -- experience -- is the last thing that they want.