By Jason Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 7, 2008
Channel surfing on his car radio last week, Washington Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell stopped when he heard his name. The Redskins were the topic on a sports talk call-in show and Campbell was the focus.
"Some guy [called in and] said, 'Well, if the Redskins start out 1-4, do you throw [backup quarterback] Todd Collins in there?' I just started laughing," Campbell said after a recent practice at Redskins Park. "I thought to myself, 'Darn, you're basically throwing me under the bus by saying it's a one-man show.' It's not a one-man show. It's a team game. What if I play great games and we still don't win? So that's still all on me? I guess that's just the way it is for me."
Beginning his second full season as a starter, Campbell, 26, acknowledged that many Redskins fans have concerns about him. On talk radio and Internet message boards, Redskins supporters question whether Campbell has the mental makeup to become a championship-caliber quarterback. And there is strong support for Collins, who played a key role in the four-game winning streak that resulted in a playoff berth.
Campbell does not troll message boards or stay glued to sports talk radio, he said, but the Redskins' standing atop the sports world in the area makes it hard to tune out completely.
With Jim Zorn in his rookie season as a head coach, a new offense and Washington facing its three NFC East opponents on the road in the first five games, Campbell will be under the microscope from the outset even more than usual for a Redskins quarterback. A strong start could spur Redskins owner Daniel Snyder to begin contract negotiations with Campbell's agent. If Campbell struggles, however, Zorn, Snyder and Vinny Cerrato, the team's executive vice president of football operations, might make a change quickly after Collins's impressive performance down the stretch last season.
Campbell understands the situation and said he expects to have a breakthrough season in his fourth year in the NFL. But he seems irked about being considered a weak link by some.
"People have really made me the goat since last season," Campbell said. "People were saying I was one of the best young quarterbacks in the NFL, but then I hurt my knee and I was out the rest of the year. The team wins four games, goes to the playoffs and now I'm the goat.
"If things don't go right, I'm to blame. I can already see I'm to blame for everything, so I'm not trying to worry about anything. I'm just going to go out and have a Pro Bowl-type season and let everything ride."
The Campbell-Collins situation has been the elephant in the room for Washington's offense since the team clinched its playoff berth. The Redskins were 5-7 and on a four-game losing streak when Campbell's season was cut short by a dislocated left kneecap Dec. 6 in a 24-16 victory over Chicago. Collins, 36, led the Redskins to all their points in that game and to victories over the New York Giants, Minnesota and Dallas.
Collins received high marks from coaches and players for his performance in helping Washington clinch only its third playoff appearance in 15 seasons. He struggled in the playoff loss to Seattle, but Snyder and Cerrato had seen enough. Re-signing Collins was their main goal in free agency this offseason. Zorn traveled to Quincy, Mass., to woo Collins the day before free agents could sign.
Collins, who strongly considered signing with Jacksonville, returned to the Redskins for a three-year, $9 million contract that included a $3 million signing bonus. Campbell, who has two more years remaining on his rookie contract, will have a base salary of $1,235,000 this season.
When Zorn met with Collins in February, he told him Campbell would be the starter, Zorn said. Early in the offseason, Zorn publicly committed to Campbell. "Last year was last year, this is a new year," Collins said. "Sure, I'd like to [start], but I knew what the situation was when I came back. I just have to stay ready, which is what I've done for my whole career."
Collins, who did not receive offers to be a clear-cut starter elsewhere, was primarily a backup in his first 13 seasons in the NFL. For the previous eight seasons (six with Kansas City, two with Washington) Collins worked in the offense of former Redskins play-caller Al Saunders, who was forced out in the staff shakeup after former coach Joe Gibbs retired.
His familiarity with Saunders's scheme undoubtedly helped Collins, who completed 63.8 percent of his passes for 888 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions during the winning streak. He had a 106.4 passer rating.
Throughout the streak and after Collins re-signed, Campbell answered a volley of questions about the surprising play of his backup. Campbell said he felt that some in the media unfairly portrayed Collins as the better quarterback, but "I have nothing against Todd. What he did last season is he came in and helped the team get to the playoffs. He was in Al Saunders's offense for a long enough time to understand the ins and outs of it."
In fairness to Campbell, Washington's offensive line, in a state of flux since early in the season a year ago because of injuries, played at its best during the winning streak, players said. And starting wide receivers Santana Moss and Antwaan Randle El were sound physically after having been hobbled for most of the season.
Campbell, who has had only 20 starts in his pro career, completed 60 percent of his passes with a 77.6 passer rating last season. He had 12 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions.
During a 34-3 victory over Detroit in Week 5, he completed 23 of 29 passes for 248 yards and two touchdowns and was named NFC offensive player of the week. Campbell passed for a career-high three touchdowns in Week 10 against Philadelphia and a personal-best 348 yards in Week 11 against Dallas.
"I won't ever talk about myself and say what I can do. I let other folks do that," Campbell said. "But [NFL] people tell me they've seen a lot of young quarterbacks play and they say I'm a step above. When they say things like that, it makes you feel positive about what you're doing in your development. And that's from some of the biggest people in the NFL. They don't tell you that unless they really mean it."
Some Redskins fans were alarmed by Campbell's critical quotes in assessing his performance after the first two days of training camp. On an Internet message board, fans posted comments about Campbell appearing to feel pressure. But Campbell has been confident and steady on the field, his teammates said.
"You can't stop JC from being the guy he is and JC is just hard on himself," Moss said. "Jerry Rice was hard on himself. Michael Jordan was hard on himself. As a quarterback, it's almost like you have no room for error at times."
Campbell played well in Sunday's 30-16 victory over Indianapolis in the Hall of Fame game. On the game's first possession, he teamed with Randle El on a 20-yard touchdown pass and finished the game 5 for 5 for 61 yards.
"He had poise in the pocket. He really kept the tempo up like we wanted," Zorn said. "He made a conscious effort to do those things for the whole time he was in there. As we move along in training camp and as we move along in the preseason, I think he's just going to get better and better and understand how quickly the game has to be played. He made a good start."
Washington will face Buffalo in its preseason home opener Saturday and Campbell knows his critics will be watching.
"I have all the confidence in the world in who I am and what I can do to help this team win," Campbell said. "I know that I'm the quarterback of this team and we can do great things. That's all I'm thinking about."