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Washington Turns Over a New Leaf, Protects the Football

By Dan Steinberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 29, 2008

IRVING, Tex., Sept. 28 -- Jason Campbell's last visit to Texas Stadium kicked off one of the bumpiest stretches of his career. His Washington Redskins were driving for a score at the beginning of the second half before Campbell fumbled. In the closing moments, they were driving for a potential game-winning score before a Campbell interception ended matters. In the next two weeks, Campbell's offense would cough up the ball eight more times, and Washington would suffer two more losses.

"It was tough," Campbell said of his turnover woes a year ago. "It was tough. At the same time, you just tried to understand and learn from it. No reason to beat yourself up over it; try to find some kind of way to improve from it."

A year later, the offense has improved in the most dramatic way possible. Sunday's 26-24 win over the Dallas Cowboys marked the fourth consecutive game in which Washington's offense did not suffer a single turnover. The team's turnover ratio for the season is plus-six, tied for tops in the NFL with the undefeated Tennessee Titans.

Rookie safety Chris Horton has, by himself, snagged three interceptions and a fumble recovery, while his offense and special teams counterparts have suffered just a single fumble, one that came on a punt return. And thanks largely to their success in that realm, the Redskins have enjoyed better starting field position than their opponents in all four of their games.

"To be honest, I can't explain it," tackle Chris Samuels said. "I just hope we keep doing it."

His counterparts on the offense, though, tried to make what sense they could of this dramatic turnaround after a 2007 season in which they finished 21st in the league with at minus-5.

To begin with, the West Coast offense favored by Coach Jim Zorn uses short, high-percentage passes over riskier downfield attempts. Zorn has drummed into Campbell the merits of throwing the ball away, and waiting for the next play rather than carelessly forcing the ball into coverage. In typical Zorn fashion, there is a quirky name for such mistakes: "vicinity throws" or "hopeful throws," he calls them.

"It's not a high-risk offense; it's move the ball down the field and take what you can get," tight end Chris Cooley said. "And Jason did a tremendous job of taking advantage and just putting the throws on the guys who need them."

Equally significant, Washington has had fourth-quarter leads in its past three games, sparing Campbell of the need to press.

Then there are Zorn's drills in practice. He bashes the quarterbacks as they throw to improve their balance and ball security, and he runs them through exercises in which both their hands must remain on the ball. Those physical drills are in addition to his mental approach, with the coach talking about stinginess more than a teenager denied allowance.

"I just give credit to Z," center Casey Rabach said of the coach. "He's just preaching to [Campbell] about security of the ball. Be smart with the ball and good things happen."

The running backs have also cooperated. Last season, Clinton Portis had a career-high six fumbles, one for every 54 carries. This year, he has 86 rushing attempts without once losing the ball, and has repeatedly asked reporters to stop jinxing him by talking about it.

But players acknowledged that there is also some measure of good fortune in this development. In a win over the Cardinals last week, Carlos Rogers grabbed a tipped ball for an interception. The week before, when Washington beat the Saints, Horton had two interceptions off tips.

Sunday, Campbell and running back Ladell Betts miscommunicated on a handoff; the ball popped into the air and was grabbed by Campbell, who managed to gain six yards on the play. Similarly, on the play before Washington's third field goal, a Campbell pass was batted into the air but fell harmlessly onto an empty patch of green.

"They haven't turned the ball over this year and we didn't get one from them," Dallas Coach Wade Phillips said. "You're fighting a battle every time that you lose the turnover battle."

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