By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 30, 2008
They were chosen one year and two dozen NFL draft spots apart, so in some ways there is little that ties together the pro careers of the New York Giants' Eli Manning and the Washington Redskins' Jason Campbell. Everything, from contract to expectations to timetable for success, is different for a quarterback drafted first overall than one drafted 25th.
Even so, they compete in the same unyielding division, and they will share a field today in Landover as the Redskins (7-4) try to draw a game closer to the first-place Giants (10-1) in the NFC East. And now that Manning is the quarterback of the defending Super Bowl champions and the on-field leader of the sport's most imposing team this season, he has become the standard by which the progress of other developing players at the position -- like Campbell -- can be measured.
By that yardstick, some observers said, it becomes clear that while Campbell has made great strides this season, there still is a ways to go for him to make the jump Manning made nearly a year ago by transforming himself into a championship quarterback.
"Look at Eli. Look at [Ben] Roethlisberger. Look at Philip Rivers, and look at Jason," former Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann said this week. "I kind of put them in there together because they're around the same age. I think that's fair. . . . Jason will get there. But he's a year and a half behind those other guys in his development because he's been forced to learn a new system.
"I think he throws the ball as well. I think he has the same command of an offense. I think he's as tough as those guys are. What he lacks right now is the vertical passing game to showcase his skills as a quarterback."
Manning has spent his football-playing life being judged against older brother Peyton, a fellow top overall selection in the NFL draft. Older brother has rewritten a portion of the NFL record book for the Indianapolis Colts. But younger brother now is tied in Super Bowl victories with one apiece and could forge ahead in that category.
Yet the general consensus in and around the league seems to be Eli Manning doesn't deserve to be talked about with the same reverence bestowed upon conversations about his brother and Tom Brady, the injured three-time Super Bowl winner for the New England Patriots.
Not yet, at least.
"I don't compare him to Peyton," said former Redskins tight end Rick "Doc" Walker, now a broadcaster. "It's not fair to him. He might be ahead of Peyton on his timetable. He's making remarkable progress. He's won the big one. He's dealt with the transition of his team around him. His brother is throwing the ball to Hall of Famers. Eli is doing great for Eli. He's way ahead of his own race."
Eli Manning was drafted in 2004 in the same first round as the Pittsburgh Steelers' Roethlisberger and the San Diego Chargers' Rivers. Now Manning and Roethlisberger are Super Bowl winners. Rivers reached the AFC title game last season and, even with the Chargers struggling this season, is the league's top-rated passer at the moment.
Campbell was taken by the Redskins with the 25th overall pick in the 2005 draft after two other quarterbacks, the San Francisco 49ers' Alex Smith and the Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers, had been. Campbell is 31 regular season starts into his NFL career. That's 35 starts behind Manning, who had a mediocre career passer rating of 73.4 at the end of the 2007 regular season before suddenly playing mistake-free football throughout the playoffs as the Giants went on their Super Bowl run.
Manning's superb play has continued into this season, and now he's the league's eighth-rated passer, putting him four spots ahead of Campbell. Former NFL coach Dan Reeves said he never doubted Manning would become an accomplished pro quarterback, and he said sudden jump in Manning's play last postseason had as much to do with an overall offensive improvement by the Giants as it did with anything Manning did personally.
"Earlier in the year, he'd thrown a huge amount of interceptions in a game against Minnesota [four in a late-November defeat], and I didn't think that was so much Eli's fault," Reeves said this week. "They were running a lot of plays where the receivers had a lot of options. It seemed to me like they cut down on that later on. They got everybody on the same page, and once that happened you saw what Eli can do."
Said Theismann: "Eli is playing at a high level. He makes plays down the field. He protects the ball. Remember, up through Week 15 last year, they were ready to tar and feather him in New York. Then in a span of, what, five football games, that one against the Patriots at the end of the regular season and those four in the postseason, he rose to another level. Now, in another 11 games this season, he has moved to another level still.
"Now, does that put him up there with his brother and with Tom Brady? No. Not yet. But he's moving in that direction. If he plays another year at this level, then you think about moving him up again."
For Campbell, the problem going back to his college days at Auburn has been regular coaching and offensive-system changes. It happened again this season when Jim Zorn took over for the retired Joe Gibbs as the Redskins' coach and installed a version of a West Coast passing offense while keeping the running offense from the Gibbs regime intact.
Campbell has demonstrated he can be a highly effective complementary quarterback. He has limited his mistakes, throwing only three interceptions all season, while the Redskins have leaned on tailback Clinton Portis, the league's leading rusher and a most valuable player candidate. But Campbell has thrown a relatively modest 10 touchdown passes, eight fewer than Manning.
That is interpreted to mean he's yet to prove he can go out and win games on his own when Portis and the running game aren't doing the heavy lifting. And the disclaimer of being a "young" quarterback might not last too much longer. Campbell turns 27 in a month. Few still refer to Manning, who turns 28 in January, as a young quarterback. Established is more like it.
"The one common thread you have with all of them, and now with Jason, is that they all have strong running games around them," Theismann said in comparing Campbell to Manning, Roethlisberger and Rivers. "Then comes the passing game. Eli has Plaxico [Burress]. He has Kevin Boss, who's becoming a very viable tight end. They make plays down the field in the passing game. It's the same way with the Steelers and the Chargers. The difference between their offenses and the Redskins' offense is that the Redskins, at this point, don't make plays down the field.
"The offensive line played pretty well [last Sunday], but the previous two weeks, it didn't play very well. That's part of it. As a quarterback, your play is partly a function of the circumstances around you. I have no doubt that Jim Zorn is the perfect coach for Jason. Eli is in his second year with Kevin Gilbride as his offensive coordinator. Next year, you'll see this development with Jason and the Redskins' passing game down the field. For this football team to move to the next level, that's a mandatory element."
The Redskins tried to give Campbell additional help in last spring's NFL draft by taking wide receivers Malcolm Kelly and Devin Thomas and tight end Fred Davis in the second round. But none has been a major contributor yet, and Walker said it's clear to him the Redskins still need to find more playmakers to put around Campbell in their passing game.
"He's a second-year starter," Walker said. "He's still struggling to learn a new system, a new coach, new parts. Jason's on an island, and he's trying to get more supplies. He doesn't have enough options. This offense doesn't have enough weapons. If he gets them, he'll be fine. There's a reason why this offense is where it's at. They've maxed out on the running game. They can get better in the passing game."
Yet the prevailing opinion appears to be the Redskins are fine at quarterback and all could be fine with time and the necessary assistance.
"I do think he'll get there," Reeves said. "I've watched him since his last year in college, and I've always been impressed with him. I was there last year for a preseason game. I came out before the ballgame and watched him throw. I talked to [former Redskins quarterbacks coach] Bill Lazor, who had been on my staff, and he was talking about how smart he was and how he's able to pick right up on what you're doing.
"You watch him throw, and you can see he has the accuracy, and his delivery is very good. You have to like his size and his movement. His leadership skills seem to be very good. He has poise under pressure. I would say the Redskins are set at that position, and they should focus on building the supporting cast around him. . . . There are a lot of different systems. But what is comes down to is, he can make all the throws. That's what you look for."