By Thomas Boswell
Thursday, September 11, 2008
Jason Campbell isn't as bad a mismatch for the West Coast offense as he has seemed so far. Nobody could be.
The fourth-year quarterback is too talented and too dedicated to have many games where he looks as utterly ill-suited to his offensive system, as indecisive and ineffective as he was in the first 54 minutes of the Redskins' 16-7 loss to the Giants in Washington's opener.
But it's not too early to start wondering whether a 6-foot-5, strong-armed passer who was drafted by Joe Gibbs to run a maximum-protection, lock-on-one-receiver, rush-to-set-up-the-bomb offense, is fundamentally ill-suited to Jim Zorn's quick-drop, see-the-field-fast, super-accurate-passing offense. You could hardly design two attacks that required more dissimilar skill sets.
Campbell, who's had to learn seven offensive schemes in his college and pro career, faces a huge task. It's amazing he doesn't come to the line, call a Gibbs play in an Al Saunders formation with a Zorn snap count, then scream, "I give up."
So, Redskins fans should have patience. (Pause.) Okay, that didn't work. How about optimism? Let's try that.
Campbell is not always going to look antsy in a three-step-drop offense and be inconsistent on short throws. Or at least he won't be as poor at it as he, and his outplayed offensive line, were against New York when he had only 49 yards passing after 54 minutes and ran an offense that had just four snaps inside the Giants 30-yard line.
The Redskins won't always have three penalties before they get off a snap. Or fail to complete a pass until 1 minute 10 seconds before halftime. Or have five completions that result in losses of possession since those passes didn't gain enough for first downs. Someday, the Redskins will even install a normal NFL hurry-up offense.
Things will get better because you can't set the bar much lower. However, one game, which gets more ugly every time you watch it, does open for valid discussion every question about Campbell in the West Coast.
One fact is most telling: In desperation, the Redskins eventually let Campbell operate from the shotgun, a formation Zorn disdains but one in which Campbell is comfortable. In the gun, he completed 10 of 15 passes for 99 yards with one dropped pass, two near-miss bombs and one pass caught out of bounds.
In other words, when he had extra time to see the field, didn't need quick evasive footwork or rapid-read decisions -- with few key elements of the West Coast style in play -- every Campbell pass was on the money.
But from Zorn's basic offense, Campbell was 5 for 12 for just 34 yards and threw one effective pass, his 12-yard touchdown to Santana Moss just before halftime.
Some quarterbacks are so great they can excel in any offense. But most can't. So the NFL is often a league of matchmaking, pairing quarterback to proper coach, just as Gibbs -- lacking a superstar behind center -- identified big, gutsy deep-throwing passers such as Mark Rypien, Doug Williams and Campbell to run his system. Sometimes the NFL offers a chance for an average quarterback to hone one system, as Todd Collins became a master of Saunders's 700-page playbook (after seven years).
Where does Campbell fit? More than any one factor, that's what this season will be about, as Redskins fans try to keep their sanity. Mood swings, here we come.
As Campbell showed with those 15 zipping throws out of the shotgun against the Super Bowl champs on the road, he doesn't quit. System or no system, he's going to light some people up. But as the last two preseason games showed, it doesn't take a world champ to make the Redskins' offense look lost.
When we combine the best and worst of Campbell, will it be good enough? How long will it take to find out? Given the Redskins' impatience, will the team reeducate Campbell and change its personnel to fit Zorn, then (just when things might come together) blow it up again?
The Redskins seldom stick to a long-term plan. They just react to events (often emotionally), like Gibbs's sudden retirement. And it can leave them in strange places with peculiar problems -- like West Coast Jason.
Is Zorn's offense a nightmare for Campbell? Probably. But he's a pro, not a sulker, who'll do his best. But Zorn and executive vice president Vinny Cerrato certainly seem to know how dicey their quarterback situation has become. They re-signed Collins even after canning Saunders, the coach who created him. And they drafted Colt Brennan, a project with West Coast skills. Brennan's three-quarter-arm release has to change for survival in the NFL -- a huge transition. But he delivers the ball quickly, is accurate on short to midrange passes, has some mobility, improvises with gusto and may already see the field as well as Campbell.
It's far too early to draw conclusions about Campbell, who played in a West-Coast-with-training-wheels offense in his senior year at Auburn. But let's not sugarcoat this.
Campbell is being asked to go from deep drops to short drops. From vertical bombs to lateral timing routes that hit receivers in stride for maximum yards gained after the catch. He's switching from extra protection with two or three receivers in a pattern to four or five receivers to decode in a blink. Instead of Gibbsian "stand in the pocket" courage and willingness to absorb a blow, now he's listening to Zorn say, "He's so big, and I just want him to move faster."
Gibbs's formation-shifting, man-in-motion schemes helped quarterbacks identify their primary receiver before the snap. Zorn is the opposite: Scramble the posse after the snap, make the passer drop back fast, read the defense fast, pick a receiver instantly, then deliver with a quick motion.
Did I mention "fast"?
Zorn, an ex-quarterback who had to learn a new system in mid-career when Chuck Knox took over the Seahawks, said of Campbell: "I think he's got enough athleticism, I really do, to speed up his game in certain situations. And part of it, I'm hoping, is just the idea of understanding the offense better, the speed of it. He's not there yet, but I'm not totally discouraged."
Many in the NFL are both skeptical and fascinated. On Campbell's side: a great arm and work ethic, good enough footwork, a bit of "escapability" and a willingness to learn.
On the other side -- always the same issues: He has a big passing motion that Saunders tried, with some success, to abbreviate. Over and over you hear, "Does he see the field well enough?" -- a gift that, despite new coaching gizmos, is hard to improve. Is he charismatic enough? Even in the huddle, Moss said last year that his rapid Southern-accented speech was sometimes hard to understand.
In addition, Campbell almost never releases the ball until after his receiver finishes his final break, rather than throwing "on" or an instant before the break. After being in so many systems, is he hesitant to trust that he and his receiver are on the same page? His powerful arm compensates, to a degree. But most successful West Coast quarterbacks unload on the break.
Finally, the Redskins now ask their quarterbacks to call the line-blocking changes when they see a blitz coming. Linemen used to do it. "Jason has to know a ton more, so it has to be hard," tackle Chris Samuels said.
If Campbell can overcome all of this, he'll deserve every ovation he gets at FedEx Field. What hasn't this guy been clobbered with in Washington? He was forced to take over the starting job quickly and now has learned three systems in four years. He's had a serious knee injury. And fans will remember that in January, Collins took a team that was under .500 when Campbell got hurt to the playoffs.
Will Campbell become a good West Coast quarterback? Doubtful. However, if there's any justice, will he prove us skeptics wrong? Absolutely.