By Jason Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 11, 2008
The long conversations occurred over several days because Washington Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell and rookie wide receiver Malcolm Kelly had a lot to discuss. The focus of Campbell's message to Kelly was maintaining confidence despite adversity and, according to Campbell, it was well-received.
Energized after Campbell's pep talks, Kelly made strides in his rehab from arthroscopic knee surgery and was back at practice this week. If his left knee continues to respond well, Kelly said he expects to make his pro debut Sunday in Washington's FedEx Field opener against the New Orleans Saints.
The Redskins are eager to have Kelly in the lineup because of his size and play-making potential, coaches and players said, and Kelly is restless after having watched from the sideline for so long. The Redskins are hopeful Kelly quickly emerges as a difference-maker offensively -- and Kelly has no doubts he will.
"I know what I can do," Kelly said earlier this week at Redskins Park. "Once I get on the field, I know what's going to happen. I know I've been out, and I know the doubters are out there, but I can play this game. And to know that I have the confidence in the guy who's going to be throwing you the ball, that means a lot."
Drafted from Oklahoma with one of the Redskins' three second-round picks, Kelly (6 feet 4, 219 pounds) is the biggest wide receiver on the roster. Kelly and top pick Devin Thomas (6-2, 218), also drafted in the second round, were supposed to provide depth and versatility to a receiving corps that lacked a big target and a consistent No. 3 wideout last season.
Things began well for Kelly, who made a good impression in training camp with his receiving and blocking skills, many in the organization said, while beginning to learn the X receiver, or split end position, in Coach Jim Zorn's version of the West Coast offense. He was far ahead of Thomas, who started out at the Z, or flanker, and Zorn and offensive coordinator Sherman Smith envisioned running special plays for Kelly, whose height and leaping ability could create matchup problems in the red zone.
Kelly, however, had problems physically. Thomas and Kelly angered Zorn with their poor conditioning at the beginning of camp. Initially slowed because of a hamstring injury, Kelly underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left knee Aug. 4 and missed the preseason. Kelly was supposed to make his debut Aug. 28 in Washington's final preseason game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, but his knee became swollen in pregame warmups.
"I was a bit disappointed about the last preseason game. We all were, because we thought he was going to play, and his knee just wasn't right," wide receivers coach Stan Hixon said. "We erred on the side of caution for what was best for him. It's a long haul, and it's early in his career."
The Redskins were so concerned about Kelly's situation -- and about possibly being short-handed at wideout -- that they considered putting him on the season-ending injured reserve list, Zorn said. The Redskins included Kelly on the 53-man active roster, which is "what I wanted," Kelly said. "I've been playing football all my life, and I was tired of sitting. The whole thing . . . it's just been frustrating."
Campbell noticed. He has become one of Kelly's mentors (top wide receiver Santana Moss also counsels Kelly), offering daily encouragement and advice about life in the league.
They first met in April, when Campbell was part of a large Redskins contingent that observed Kelly in a private workout for Redskins personnel in Norman, Okla. Kelly ran routes as Campbell threw to him, and Campbell strongly supported the decision to pick Kelly, who slid down several draft boards because of his disappointing performances in the 40-yard dash (he posted times of 4.69 and 4.63 seconds in individual workouts) and questions about his willingness to play through injuries.
None of that mattered to Campbell "because when you can play, you can play," Campbell said. "As players, we know when guys can play, and Malcolm can."
Before Kelly injured his hamstring in camp, he and Campbell were developing a rhythm on deep balls. Campbell had seen enough to confirm his initial impressions of Kelly, and Campbell did his part to keep Kelly involved while he was sidelined.
"Just talking to him and telling him to always stay positive and believe in himself," Campbell said. "In this game, you're always going to have the critics, but you have to block out that stuff, play loose and have fun. As long as you're having fun, that's when you're at your best. You learn real fast that's what you have to do."
In last week's 16-7 season-opening loss to the New York Giants, the Redskins often sputtered offensively when Zorn, Washington's play-caller, called passing formations that had Campbell using a three-step drop, which is a staple of the West Coast offense. Campbell struggled to locate Moss and No. 2 wideout Antwaan Randle El (each is listed at 5-10) on short and intermediary routes, which disrupted the quick, rhythmic cadence of Zorn's style.
Thomas played against the Giants but had only one reception for five yards and continued to struggle running routes. If Kelly's knee holds up, "we can do some of the same stuff we're doing, but you've just got a bigger guy doing it," Smith said. "Then defenses have to be a little bit different because this guy can out-physical you, whereas maybe some of our smaller guys can't.
"Just watching the games [last week], watching the Dallas Cowboys and these teams with the big wide receivers, you just see what they can do. Now, Malcolm is a bigger target, so you can see him, yeah that's true. But you've also got to find Santana or whoever's in there. You've got to find 'em, man, because who we have is who we have. But it would be great to get Malcolm out there. We drafted him to play."
Said Randle El: "The biggest thing with him is, he goes out and makes plays. The ball's up in the air, he goes up there and gets it."
Knowing he has the confidence of his teammates, and Campbell in particular, Kelly is ready to finally get started.
"The whole time stuff was being said out there, 'He's not going to be effective this year,' me and Jason had long a talk," Kelly said. "He was just telling me that he's learned not to listen to what people are saying, so I just really put stuff out of my mind. The best way to do it is just go out there and do what you do."