By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 6, 2007
Jason Campbell can picture it all so vividly: The game clock is dwindling, the Redskins are in need of a game-winning score and a teammate is nestling into a open area in the end zone. Campbell delivers a perfect strike to the receiver, the Washington Redskins win the kind of game that has often slipped away and the young quarterback claims his first John Elway moment in a fourth-quarter comeback.
To this point, Campbell has yet to achieve that reality, often falling gut-wrenchingly short. Late-game heroics require a level of savvy and experience not easily gained, and Campbell, 25, will enter his 20th career start tonight against Chicago still looking for a signature drive to close a game. Thriving in the final two minutes, he admits, is one of his last great hurdles as he aims to become the franchise quarterback the Redskins have long sought.
"We've been so close this season," Campbell said. "The Dallas game we almost come from behind and win it, and the Tampa game is so close, but you do that as a quarterback and go back over some of the moments and you wish for that" game-winning play.
"But I know it's going to happen for me one day. I've just got to continue to keep plugging and keep pushing on. I feel like I've made a major improvement from last season to this season. The only thing I have to do now is try to protect the football better when I'm getting hit, and when you make a throw just understand sometimes that it's better to just go ahead and eat it."
The lessons have come hard and fast this season, with the Redskins (5-7) dropping four straight games to fall to the periphery of the NFC playoff picture. They have lost several games in the final minutes.
At Dallas, Campbell marshaled the Redskins deep into Cowboys territory with the game on the line, only to throw an interception. Then he did the same thing twice the following week at Tampa Bay. Last week the Redskins needed only one more first down out of their four-minute offense to close out the game, but the running game faltered and Buffalo rallied for a 17-16 win.
Campbell can hardly shoulder the entire blame, with play-calling, pass protection and in-game management by Coach Joe Gibbs highly suspect at times as well. But he has turned over the ball 13 times in the past six games -- he has had at least one turnover in eight straight games -- and has not produced that final late touchdown when needed.
The crippling losses have at times driven him to tears and his teammates have voiced unequivocal support. And while he has displayed moments of brilliance during the losing streak, posting his first two 300-yard games and completing nearly 62 percent of his passes, it is the critical mistakes that haunt him.
"That's a natural part of your development, and the best place to learn at that position is in game-type situation," said backup Mark Brunell, a 15-year veteran. "And that's happening and Jason is getting better every week, and to see his progress, it's exciting to see where he's going to go, because he's going to be a very good one for a long time.
"He's got the talent and he's got the poise and what I've been impressed with is we've had some good wins and some tough losses, and he's been poised. He doesn't get too high and he doesn't get too low. He handles everything like a professional, and it's basically just who he is coming out on the field and I think guys respect that."
Campbell is still trying to take command in the waning stages of games. This season he has been a part of 10 drives that either carried into the two-minute warning in the fourth quarter, or began after it. He is completing just 49 percent of those passes -- he is completing 60 percent of his attempts overall -- with no touchdowns, two interceptions and a poor 45.6 rating.
Campbell threw a touchdown pass to tight end Todd Yoder in his first NFL start in 2006 -- cutting a 10-point deficit to three in defeat -- but has not thrown a touchdown inside the final two minutes of the fourth quarter since. During games decided by seven points or fewer -- a regularity for Washington -- Campbell has tossed five touchdown passes and nine interceptions, and the more times the Redskins have asked Campbell to throw, the more error-prone he has been. He has a 82.8 passer rating on pass attempts one through 30, but after that his rating drops to 52.8.
None of this is out of the ordinary, and Gibbs credited Campbell for late-game acumen in the close contests Washington has won this season.
"We try and devote a lot of practice time to special situations," Gibbs said. "And I think probably a lot of those things too, are living through them in a game situation when the bullets are flying."
However, several players believe there is still not nearly enough emphasis on these areas in practice. They believe that would lead to be better results from players, as well as helping Gibbs's game management.
Seven veteran players displayed some degree of frustration with the lack of live, 11-on-11 drills between the first-team offense and defense, and said that the bulk of such work -- operating at full speed under duress, having to call timeouts and work in unusual situations beyond the scope of normal two-minute and no-huddle drills -- is reserved for training camp.
Players said that on other teams they would work weekly on such drills, with coaches calling out the score, time remaining, timeouts remaining and in essence force the offense to try to win a game during practice. Some veteran players said that, in talking to players around the league, they have learned that, for instance, New England's Bill Belichick spends one to two sessions each week working on various sequences duplicating the final minute or 45 seconds of a game, alternating playing from behind by two points or four points, with timeout management and all game mechanisms.
Gibbs, whose practice script, sources said, is not unlike the one used by associate head coach Al Saunders when he was in Kansas City, spends time Fridays on a special portion of practice running the two-minute drill (no-huddle offense). But players said those sessions do not encompass all that goes into the hurried nature of the kind of games the Redskins have blown throughout his second stint here.
"If we did that [situational] stuff more, it would definitely help Jason," one veteran said. "It would help the whole offense, and I think it's as much for the coaches as anyone else. It would definitely benefit them, too."
One member of the organization said that Brunell's headiness helped cover up some of the clock-management and timeout issues in the first years after Gibbs's return to coaching, but that the practice routine never changed significantly for a less-experienced passer who is just learning how to react in these situations.
"If you watch our team, you see how every game goes down to the wire," one source said. "We've got a young quarterback who is doing the best he can, but it takes time to learn this stuff and you learn through repetition."
One team leader said, "I'll never figure out why we don't rehearse that stuff more."
Another player said: "I guess the thought here is you hope you see it in the preseason and do it in training camp, and if it comes up in a game you hope you can go back to that. But it's not the same as having been through it that week in practice."
However, other players, including standouts such as wide receiver Santana Moss, said that the team's practices are similar to what they have seen elsewhere in the NFL and that practice is no excuse for letting games get away. Other members of the organization said they believe a fear of injuries, given the nature of such 11-on-11 drills, could be a reason the Redskins do not work on this aspect as much.
When asked how often he goes live against the defense under full game situations, including having to call timeouts and come from behind, Campbell said: "We don't do that too much, but certain situational stuff we work on, a lot of four-minute and two-minute. It's so hard to simulate all of that in practice and I think you have to experience it more in a game."
However, sources said that Campbell, under the tutelage of offensive coordinator Al Borges at Auburn, worked relentlessly on late-game situations in college, where it was a staple of practice, and responded well to it. Regardless of any connection between practice and performance, the Redskins know how easily they could be 7-5 now, rather than mired in their current predicament.
"We're looking at all our games now that we should have won or could have won," Campbell said. "And all we need is one more big play or one big stop, and that's what's been getting us all season."
Redskins Notes: Guard Randy Thomas is expected to play tonight for the first time since tearing his triceps in Week 2. Thomas, fullback Mike Sellers (back), wide receiver Antwaan Randle-El (hamstring) and tailback Clinton Portis (shoulder) are probable. Cornerback Shawn Springs (back) is questionable; wideout James Thrash (high ankle sprain) is out and will miss his fourth straight game. . . .
Profits from the sale of No. 21 jerseys and other Sean Taylor items at official Washington Redskins stores will go to the trust fund established for his daughter, Jackie, the team announced. . . . Taylor continues to be the leading vote-getter at safety in balloting for the NFC Pro Bowl team.