By Mike Wise
Friday, September 5, 2008
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J.
Jason Campbell should have every alibi at his disposal. Lousy protection. Rotating coaches and playbooks. No rookie wide receiver emerging to the fore and giving him another weapon. And he's coming off a knee injury, the most draining physical comeback in sports.
He also knows Eli Manning had alibis a year ago in New York, and it didn't matter a bit. At some point, the kid had to make plays to make people believe. Last year became a career-defining season, one in which Manning would either show the promise and poise of a face-of-the-franchise quarterback or the jitters and vacant stares of a four-year veteran who doesn't yet get it.
Manning told him so on Thursday night, before and after the Giants beat an out-of-sync and lethargic-looking Washington Redskins team, 16-7, on the night the Super Bowl champions celebrated their surreal upset last winter.
"He was talking about all the things he went through and now where he's at," Campbell said. Manning talked to Campbell about forks in the road of a career, how he somehow veered down the right path against every piece of evidence to the contrary.
It is Campbell's fourth season now, his own fork in the road. With his own uneven and sometimes unsightly performance Thursday night, he begins the same arduous journey his counterpart took a year ago.
He wasn't very good and he knows it. Campbell badly overthrew a couple check-down passes, including a screen to Ladell Betts that he rifled over the running back's head on a second-and-long play in the fourth quarter. He didn't complete a pass until less than two minutes remained in the first half.
Under siege by the young, bull-rushing Giants, unprotected at times by his offensive line, he never got into a rhythm and never gave anyone the sense that he had grasped much of Jim Zorn's West Coast offense. He admitted as much afterward.
"I don't think anyone expected us to come out here tonight and look like the Seattle Seahawks, the way they run their offense right now," he said of Zorn's former team. "They've been running it for a while and they've been in it for a while. This is our first regular season game running it and each guy could go back and look at films and say, 'I could have done that better, I could have done this better.' "
The good news for the new union of quarterback and coach: It took Matt Hasselbeck, now a Pro Bowler in Seattle, almost two full seasons to really incorporate what Zorn was teaching him into game-day productivity. The bad news is, Campbell probably doesn't have two years. He needs to show progress now. He needs to make plays today. He needs to duck out of trouble, run to his right and somehow find a guy who makes a tremendous catch downfield in the crucible of a big game. Like Manning to David Tyree, circa last February.
Parking in front of a humongous banner that read "2007 WORLD CHAMPIONS" late Thursday afternoon, it's still hard to fathom.
The Giants? The team that backup Todd Collins and these very Redskins beat in the ice and rain in late December, the one that held the Lombardi Trophy aloft six weeks later? Led by Peyton's Awkward Little Brother and a militaristic curmudgeon of a coach who looks as if he came out of the womb seething and generally ticked off about something? They beat the 18-0 New England Patriots?
Talk about forks in the road; Tom Coughlin was supposed to lose his job last September, remember?
But Manning started finding Plaxico Burress, the Giants rallied and improbably beat the Redskins, a victory that undeniably saved Coughlin's job for the moment and gave a young, shaky quarterback from the south the confidence he needed in the winter to outgun a future Hall of Famer.
Manning was Campbell a year ago, a fourth-year player whose career would be judged by his 2007 season. The New York Giants were the Washington Redskins a year ago -- an unproven team with a quarterback trying to show he belonged among the NFL's elite.
The two have opposed each other for almost eight years, including their days in the Southeastern Conference. They both shared the changes each has gone through Thursday night, with Manning trying to console Campbell as best he could afterward. "He said, 'Offensively, once y'all catch a rhythm, you can move the ball,' " Campbell said. "He said keep persevering and I said the same."
Manning is not among the best in the profession. Indeed, his passer rating a year ago was worse than Campbell's, as it was on this night. He still makes stupid mistakes on broken plays, trying to capture another miracle moment. But when it mattered most, he made a play. He kept a drive alive.
"He talked about that," Campbell said. "He said, 'When you least expect something to happen, something turns.' "
Zorn was tempered in his criticism of Campbell afterward, saying only: "His big deal for me was to move on from a guy that's covered. Don't lock in."
The larger deal, though, after a sluggish opener, is this: It's Jason Campbell's fourth year in the NFL. It's got to happen for him this season.