By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 1, 2007
There is nothing Coach Joe Gibbs espouses more than protecting the football, and no position is more integral to that philosophy than quarterback. So of all the unsettling elements of Sunday's 52-7 debacle against New England, the sight of Jason Campbell turning over the ball a career-high four times ranked high among them.
Campbell, 25, continues to make strides his first full season as a starter, and has exceeded expectations of his coaches and teammates. He will be making just his 15th start Sunday against the New York Jets.
One area in which Campbell would most like to improve, however, is preventing turnovers.
Campbell has turned over the ball 10 times through seven games this season -- he had six turnovers in seven starts in 2006 -- with balls repeatedly knocked out of his hands. He has fumbled eight times -- four were recovered by the opposition -- and thrown six interceptions.
Injuries on the offensive line and protection breakdowns have resulted in pocket pressure and a number of blindside hits. Campbell has also endured poor exchanges from center and with tailback Clinton Portis on handoffs.
"For a quarterback you're always your worst critic and from that standpoint for me, one thing I'm going to do in practice is just try to hold on to the football with two hands," Campbell said. "I'll definitely learn from it."
Turnovers aside, Campbell's production from his seven-game run to close out last season mirrors his opening seven outings of 2007, and most importantly he is 4-3 now compared with 2-5 then. He has been much more accurate this year despite repeated drops by receivers -- he has a 59.3 completion percentage compared to 53.1 -- and aims higher.
"By the time the season's over I want to be around 63, 64 percent," he said.
Campbell's quarterback rating and passing yardage are essentially unchanged but he threw for 10 touchdowns in 2006 compared with just six in seven games this season; no Redskins wide receiver has caught a scoring pass since December and only six teams have fewer touchdown passes than Washington this season.
Only eight teams have attempted fewer passes than the Redskins, and some are clamoring for Campbell to be given more opportunities to throw the ball downfield. When asked about that yesterday, Campbell smiled broadly and said: "It's not my choice. Whatever the coaches decide, that's what I'll do."
NFL teams have on average thrown the ball 55 percent of the time this season; the Redskins have run the ball 209 times and thrown it 205 despite a rapidly declining running game. Campbell attempted three more passes over the seven-game span last year than he has the first seven games of 2007.
"I know we have been running it a lot, but at the same time Coach talked about us getting to be a balanced team on offense," Campbell said. "And I think last week, the way we got beat opened up a lot of eyes to what we need to do to make ourselves a better offense, and sometimes a change-up here or there will be better. And I feel like we're going in a direction where we're more balanced now besides just looking to run more, and I think that will help us out a lot."
"We need to take more shots, we know that," said Joe Bugel, assistant head coach-offense. "But to take more shots you've got to be able to run the football."
Several prominent players, including Campbell, said they were surprised he has attempted fewer passes in 2007 than he did last season.
Coach Joe Gibbs is striving for a balance between the run and pass, holding up the Redskins' 34-3 win over Detroit on Oct. 7 as the paradigm, when they ran 35 times for 118 yards and Campbell completed 23 of 29 passes for 248 yards.
"In that game we wound up with real good balance . . . and that's kind of the formula," Gibbs said. "That's what we'd like to be."
Campbell has been sacked 12 times this season after just seven last year. Washington's inconsistent pass protection is related to the conservative nature of the offense, as the coaches want to avoid an injury to Campbell. After Sunday's struggles, the Redskins' offense practiced against more live blitzes yesterday, going at game-pace.
"We've got to protect that kid, because he can throw the ball 50-60 yards downfield, and that's what we have to do," Bugel said. "We have to be a vertical passing team, and you've got to be able to hold somebody off for 2.5 seconds. Be a bump in the road."
Even the most savvy quarterback would have fumbled on many of the hits Campbell has absorbed.
"I think Jason would be the first one to tell you he's got to be a little more careful in the pocket," associate head coach-offense Al Saunders said. " But two times when the ball came out [Sunday] he was in the process of delivering the football, and we've got to protect him a little better so that doesn't happen."
The Redskins practice strip drills each week in which defenders try to pry the ball loose, and Campbell is told to use a two-handed grip and to keep the high and tight to his body. Gibbs recalled benching Mark Rypien, who went on to win a Super Bowl with him, for being too careless with the ball, but believes Campbell's issues are less severe.
"I certainly think knowing him, that's an experience [Sunday] you didn't want," Gibbs said. "But I'd be willing to bet he learns from it."