By Jason La Canfora
Monday, October 20, 2008
The daring and swagger that had defined the in-game relationship between Coach Jim Zorn and quarterback Jason Campbell never really materialized yesterday and, instead, they found another way to win.
Both men have had better days, when the Redskins' offense brimmed with variety, when they threw with abandon on third and fourth downs, and finished off opponents in the fourth quarter. Zorn, facing a decided underdog for the second straight week, and coming off a difficult loss to St. Louis last week, drew a more conservative game plan against the Cleveland Browns, with mixed results. Campbell gutted his way through a second-quarter groin injury (neither he nor the team is worried about it lingering); managed the offense; made the key throw when he had to, including the game-winning touchdown; and remained the only regular starting quarterback in the NFL without an interception.
It wasn't particularly pretty -- this game looked more like a Joe Gibbs nail-biter than Attack of the Z-Man -- but it was effective enough in a 14-11 victory at FedEx Field that featured a stifling defense and 175 yards of rushing by tailback Clinton Portis. It wasn't the prototypical Zorn script -- 164 yards passing, no receiver over 75 yards, 36 rushes vs. 23 passing attempts -- but with Campbell ailing and the aerial game stilted early, Zorn (5-2) rode his running game.
He protected Campbell -- who was plenty efficient, completing 14 of 23 passes for a touchdown and a 97 passer rating -- and, unlike in the first four victories, Zorn opted for the ground in critical junctures, including when attempting to put away this game.
"Ground Zorn," he joked after the game. Even on a third and five in the final minutes, when a first down would clinch the win, he called a draw for Portis, opting for the path least likely to create a mistake where before he had shown a propensity to go for the throat.
"I really wanted to get that first down and we didn't," Zorn said of the play, which was stuffed after two yards, giving the Browns another chance, "and that really put a lot of pressure on our defense to have to go back out there. In games past we'd closed the door, and we left the door open, and then our defense closed the door. That's what was pretty significant about all that we did."
The logical part of Zorn's mind told him five yards was too much for a run, but he wanted to keep the clock moving. He chatted with Campbell for an extended stretch on the field with the Browns burning their final timeout before that third down, engaged in what he calls "nervous Nellie" talk, telling his quarterback to make sure everyone stayed in bounds, covering all the basics.
The draw had been effective early in the game, and Zorn figured it was time to go out of character, knowing he'd established a fledgling reputation as a guy who throws in that situation. "If we have thrown in the past, why not run?" Zorn said.
That call was somewhat symbolic of the game. Zorn went with six passes to five runs through the first two drives, with Campbell's left cleat catching the ground after the last of those passes, and the ball sailing wide of reserve tight end Fred Davis. Campbell was slow to get up and clearly not right, so Zorn immediately changed the deep pass he was about to call, running on third and 13 instead for just one yard.
"The draw on third and long, I would have liked to have taken a shot, but I didn't want to take a chance," Zorn said. "So we ran a draw, it got stuffed and we had to punt. From that point on in the first half we'd get things going and stop, get things going and stop. It was really a frustrating half for me."
From that point, 11 minutes into the game, until halftime, Zorn called 15 runs to eight passes. The tenor of the game changed; Zorn hadn't liked the looks of the passing game even before Campbell's injury, he said, and in many ways he played not to lose from there on out, a decision from the Gibbs book.
Campbell (eight completions for 74 yards and 71.7 rating at the half) had trouble planting and driving through his throws for much of that quarter, underthrowing a few and relying on his arm strength for others. He was going to have to gut this out. He spent halftime just trying to stay limber, constantly moving, working with head athletic trainer John Burrell to keep the groin as loose as possible.
Zorn, who passed on a chance to snatch the game on the first drive when punting on fourth and four from the Cleveland 35, worried about his lack of accuracy, seeing Campbell standing too tall in the pocket, assuming the groin was forcing him to compensate. Campbell said he felt stiff for a while.
"It was definitely bothering me for a while, but once I got it loose it was better," said Campbell, who attributed some of his early errant passes to a swirling wind. "It can affect you when you are trying to over-stride or under-stride."
It all amounted to another learning experience for the young quarterback. Before this season he won with the big play, or a gaudy quarterback rating; this was a more workmanlike outing. He attempted just nine passes in the second half, but completed six, including an 18-yard pass to Santana Moss in the fourth quarter to give the Redskins a 14-3 lead.
Zorn had fumed earlier in the game, calling the same play (a short route to the sideline), with Campbell throwing the ball low (he thought it would have been intercepted thrown anywhere else). This time Moss was wide open, dancing and twirling from defenders to cross the goal line. "We all hung in there together and made something happen," Moss said.
And most important, Campbell avoided any big mistakes. He threw 11 interceptions in 13 games last year, but has attempted 202 passes this season without an interception. The Redskins have an NFL record with 332 attempts as a team without an interception dating from last season. Those kinds of numbers are usually far more significant than any other.
"As a quarterback, you're not always going to have the high numbers," Campbell said. "We rushed the ball today and we were successful at that. I thought we did what we had to do to win the game."