M'm! M'm! Good!
In his 11th start as the Washington Redskins' quarterback, Jason Campbell showed for the first time that he is capable of the kind of spectacular performance that is essential if a young passer is to become a genuine star. Solid games and promising performances, of which Campbell has already had plenty, aren't enough in the NFL. Sometimes, you have to light it up, complete almost every pass and lead long drives on a day when many of the best players around you are injured and absent.
That's what Campbell did at FedEx Field yesterday. With Santana Moss, his best wide receiver, out with a groin injury and his next-best receiver, Antwaan Randle El, lost just before halftime with a hamstring pull, Campbell completed 23 of 29 passes for 248 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions to ignite a 34-3 romp over the Detroit Lions.
Despite an offensive line that has been in flux, Campbell engineered second-quarter scoring drives of 80 and 83 yards -- completing 9 of 10 passes for 122 yards -- to build a 14-0 lead and dominate time of possession on a sweltering day. His seven-yard touchdown pass to Chris Cooley, on a crisp timing pattern at the goal line, began the scoring. His quick hitch to Randle El led for a 37-yard gain to the 1-yard line set up Washington's second score. Finally, early in the fourth quarter, his poised improvisational scramble, ending in an eight-yard touchdown pass to Mike Sellers, sealed the Lions' demise.
Mistakes, demerits, flaws in the painting? There were none: no turnovers, missed open receivers or throws into coverage. With limited resources, Campbell played like a precise, reliable veteran. Twice, he even went in motion to become a receiver as the snap went to Clinton Portis on running plays. So that's what's in the other 690 pages of the playbook.
Campbell will, inevitably, have bad days. What's essential is that he also produce exceptional ones. His quarterback rating of 125.3 easily beat his previous best of 96.2. Against an admittedly miserable Lions defense with a crowd of 88,944 cheering him on, Campbell had his first high-accuracy passing day. Only once in 10 previous starts had he completed more than 57 percent. This time, he clicked at 79 percent. His yardage total was his highest ever and, if Randle El had gained another couple of feet on his slithering catch-and-run, Campbell would have had his first three-touchdown game.
"I was messing with [Randle El], telling him he cost us [both] a touchdown pass," joked Campbell, who completed seven passes for 100 yards to him in the first half.
As the game ended, Coach Joe Gibbs pulled Campbell aside to tell him he'd played "one of his best games." Afterward, Gibbs re-graded Campbell's exam and called it, "Probably his best effort. . . . He made smart decisions all day long. He took what was there and didn't try to force things. He got out of the pocket with his legs and made a big play down on the goal line.
"Every time he takes a step up, it's huge for the Redskins. You have a young guy there that is starting to work his way up. He just needs to keep doing that."
Campbell, who almost always deflects credit, conceded: "It's probably the best I've felt. I felt like I grew a lot today."
Few coaches have had more success than Gibbs at spotting and developing young quarterbacks. Don't forget to include Stan Humphries on the list as a Gibbs pupil -- he led the Chargers to a Super Bowl appearance. On days like this, Gibbs sees his judgment vindicated, not only about Campbell's talent but his leadership and grasp of the game, too.
"He showed [leadership] from the get-go on a day when we were missing Santana, our big-play guy," Gibbs said. Faced with a Lions defense that tried to take away his signature bombs, Campbell patiently went through his reads, from deep passes to medium to short, and calmly chose what was available, often while buying time moving in the pocket.
"That shows maturity. He looked real settled. He has good on-field presence. The players feel it. He gives them confidence, too," said Gibbs, who generally praises quarterbacks only sparingly. "Of course, nothing gives you confidence as much as winning."
With young quarterbacks, you get glimpses of the future a piece at a time. In Washington, no process is followed more obsessively. From Joe Theismann, Mark Rypien and Jay Schroeder, who led Washington at least as far as an NFC championship game, through the failures of Heath Shuler, Gus Frerotte and Patrick Ramsey, the Redskins' fortunes have hung on young arms. With Campbell, new pluses keep arriving with regularity while the nags -- inexperienced last-minute clock management against the Giants, the occasional loose handoff, some problems with accuracy when rolling to his left -- are fairly few and probably correctable.
In the Redskins' locker room, Campbell constantly makes converts. "All offseason I was telling my friends, 'You better take Jason Campbell in your fantasy league,' " said tackle Todd Wade, an eighth-year veteran. "He keeps his eyes downfield, feels pressure and moves in the pocket. Offensive linemen love that. He'll take a hit. He came back fast from that preseason knee injury. He has ice in his veins. He gets rid of the ball faster now. He doesn't take many sacks. And he runs when he has to."
"Jason is complete," said Sellers, who scored two touchdowns but mostly preferred to remember obliterating safety Kenoy Kennedy on a 24-yard reception. "It's crazy to see where he'll be in two or three years. What we see now is not even close to where he should be someday."
That's how teammates should talk after 34-3 wins. There will be tougher days, perhaps even next week in Green Bay when Campbell will have to compete on the same field as the ultimate finished product, Brett Favre. But without games that generate raves, there's no chance you've unearthed a jewel.
For Gibbs's second term to be a success, Campbell will have to keep revealing new levels of talent, more and more types of plays that he can master, like two elegant deep slants to Keenan McCardell for 19- and 20-yard gains on which both balls were perfectly placed for the veteran to make sliding catches in traffic. "We were so close to 4-0. But we'll take 3-1," Campbell said.
For the Redskins, who now prepare for a challenge in Green Bay, this entire season will, at times, seem like a chronicle of this pilgrim's progress. The best days, like this one, are essential to the task. They buy time so that the worst days, which always come, can be endured.