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Wheels Come Off

By Mike Wise
Monday, November 12, 2007

The hardest part for Joe Gibbs and his offensive brain trust may be the realization that they removed Jason Campbell's training wheels, and it still didn't matter.

They let Campbell call his own plays from a no-huddle, shotgun set, allowed him to do Al Saunders's job for a good portion of the day. They let him try to win a game instead of going through the usual thought process -- entrusting their 25-year-old quarterback not to lose it.

They spread four receivers over the width of the field, so that for a time it was as if he were throwing between parked cars and had asked every one his friends to run toward the hydrant, and they still found a way to lose.

Gibbs and Saunders gave him a great deal of freedom. "You can't ask for anything more than that as a quarterback," Campbell said.

"He looked like a baby Peyton [Manning] out there," Chris Samuels mused on a day Campbell had neither Santana Moss nor the constraints of a coaching staff trying to limit his mistakes with milk-the-clock runs.

But here's the rub from a truly lost afternoon at FedEx Field: All the big throws in the world -- the deep passes to James Thrash, that crucial six-yard out on third down to Keenan McCardell for a touchdown that was supposed to put the game away -- are forgotten after the football was dislodged from his hands at his 10-yard line with 2 minutes 33 seconds left.

The 114.2 passer rating becomes irrelevant when Washington's last possession expires after six quick plays and 51 seconds. When the effort to, in effect, re-win a game ends up a few yards short of Brandon Lloyd's hands, Campbell is just another link to an excruciatingly brutal loss to Philadelphia.

He isn't viewed as J-Cam Unplugged. He's not the improvisational kid who completed two-thirds of his passes and three touchdowns, the player who used five different receivers and made Thrash a name again.

Campbell instead becomes the guy who couldn't find a way to rescue a defense that gave up two monstrous, big-play touchdowns in the fourth quarter, the quarterback who, when it mattered, was unable to bail out an edgy, unsure-of-itself coaching staff that inexplicably burned all the timeouts with eight minutes left.

He doesn't get the bulk of the blame; that belongs to Ladell Betts fumbling away a shot to score the clinching touchdown; it belongs to a defense that, even without Sean Taylor playing center field like Ronnie Lott, unfathomably threw away this game like it did here against the Giants in September; the blame certainly goes to Gibbs and the clock mismanagement that continues to plague his comeback era.

Yet with all that, Donovan McNabb, Campbell's college idol who is now a friend and an occasional confidant, found a way to win amid the chaos surrounding his own team. And Campbell did not.

It should be repeated: He doesn't get the real heat for this loss. Without Campbell's accuracy and leadership and third-down steadiness, there are no touchdowns and no lead late in the game. But when the red zone becomes impenetrable with less than seven minutes left and the shotgun and no-huddle result in a fumble and a failed fourth-down attempt on the last two possessions, that's the time and place a quarterback is usually judged. Just ask Peyton Manning against the Patriots last weekend.

"We gotta learn to finish," Campbell said, ruefully. He said it would be hard to grade himself given the way the game ended, but added that "a quarterback is always his own worst critic."

Even after one of the most devastating afternoons of their careers, Campbell's teammates were high on him, on his poise in the hurry-up offense. They spoke about his passes in the clutch, before Washington lost the lead. The Redskins came into the game as the only NFL team not to have a wideout catch a touchdown pass, and Campbell fixed that quickly with a crossing-pattern strike to Thrash in the second quarter.

But Gibbs should pay careful attention to make sure Campbell doesn't internalize this meltdown. There's something about this kind of finish that can eat away at a young player's psyche, even a player as seemingly unflappable as Campbell. Not all of these second-half collapses go down as learning experiences. Some, like the timeout fiasco, become disturbing patterns of behavior.

It's like John Riggins was saying last week when asked about some of the drops by Campbell's receivers this season:

"Even though it's not his fault, it's oppressive for a young guy," Riggins said. "Anything you do in life is about confidence. So while Jason can intellectually justify that he put the ball there, if the end result is a drop and a loss, that affects how you feel about yourself and your ability."

There's no way to know until Dallas how much this loss will rattle him, if at all. But on a day when he was at last given the same green light as Tony Romo, his counterpart for the Cowboys next Sunday, Campbell deserved a much better ending.

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