Campbell in Middle of It All

By Sally Jenkins
Thursday, December 18, 2008

Week in and week out Jason Campbell stands in there, statuesque and cool in his millionaire's mustache, as the questions come at him like menacing pass rushers. Why can't the Redskins score more points? Why is their offense regressing? Where has his confidence gone?

He's been the most enigmatic player on the field for the Redskins each Sunday as they have lost five of the last six games. He hasn't been great, nor has he been terrible; he hasn't made many big game-changing plays, but neither has he made the game-killing mistake. In how many contests has Jason Campbell been the outright difference-maker for the Redskins? It's hard to say. On the other hand, he hasn't cost them a single victory, either.

"He hasn't been a quarterback who's totally failed, and in fact he's grown by leaps and bounds in playing consistently," Coach Jim Zorn said. Then Zorn added: "Have there been some plateaus? Perhaps so."

Whether Campbell is the future leader of the Redskins is one of the most critical issues confronting the team as it plays its last two games and prepares to assess needs in the offseason. Yet evaluating Campbell is a quandary, given the state of the franchise, the chaotic upheavals and roster shortcomings dictated by the front office.

It's simply difficult to say how many problems should be laid at Campbell's door, or to separate his play from larger problems: the aging and injured offensive line, the lack of consistent downfield targets beyond Santana Moss and Chris Cooley, who are covered within an inch of their lives, and the transitioning to a new West Coast offense under Zorn, a rookie head coach.

"The one thing you always have to improve on, that everybody has to improve on, is adjusting," Campbell said. "Everyone is adjusting. It's not just the quarterback. It's the running backs, the receivers. It's more than a one-year process."

As Campbell addressed members of the media yesterday, he exuded a sense of mental exhaustion. His fourth season has been especially hectic-- Zorn is his third offensive coordinator in four seasons, and he has never fully mastered one offensive philosophy before being asked to absorb another.

"I don't know how many offenses he's had to learn," fullback Mike Sellers said. "His progress is starting to come, but it's coming at a bad time, because we're not making plays."

The Redskins' giddy 6-2 start, as Campbell was in the midst of a streak of 271 passes without an interception (a franchise record), only led to a nauseating somersault in their fortunes, and now struggling at 7-7 and finding it difficult to score, he has become a chief scapegoat.

"I think we're worn down, it's been a long season, it was a long training camp, and learning a new system week in and week out, it can be draining," Campbell said. "The whole Redskins organization, that's something we're going through, a lot of changes, and it takes time for things to come together. You look at the good teams, they build it up. It doesn't just come overnight."

If you fed the information on Campbell's season into a computer and asked the question, "Is he the future of the team?" it would probably spit back, "Information incomplete." You get a similar response if you ask an expert commentator. Fox's Jimmy Johnson said, "He's done a lot of good things, but by the same token he still has a ways to go." Johnson paused and added a qualifier: "And then, he has to have the receivers to throw to downfield."

It's difficult to glean much insight into Campbell's performance even from the most concrete statistics. He's completed a very solid 63 percent of his passes, 14th in the league. He's gaining a respectable amount of yardage across the middle of the field, with 2,945 yards passing, also 14th best in the league. He ranks 10th in attempts, and he's stood in the pocket gallantly, despite being the fifth-most sacked quarterback in the league (34).

His overall quarterback rating is 85.7, which ranks 17th. That's a higher rating than Jake Delhomme, Ben Roethlisberger, Kerry Collins, Kyle Orton and Joe Flacco. The next three quarterbacks above him are Eli Manning (16th), Brett Favre (15th), and Donovan McNabb (14th), and he is within a point of all of them.

None of which really reveals much about what Campbell has done well vs. what he's done poorly. It all adds up to a middle-of-the-pack performance -- and maybe therein lies the only definitive thing that can be said about him, that he is a reflection of his 7-7 team, decent and hardworking with flashes of promise, but uneven and hardly transcendent.

It's as instructive to look at Campbell's personality as his statistics in trying to define him as a performer. He has an easy Southern temperament, he grew up in a garland of Mississippi swampland known as the Piney Woods, where life and people amble along slowly. This gives him composure, and great patience, which he has needed.

But he can also seem to lack urgency, and one of the things Zorn would like him to do is play with greater intensity, and at a faster tempo. He has meticulousness, and a desire to do the little things right, but this can also make him a slow operator, and he hasn't yet mastered some of the subtleties of the position, small things with which he might be able to turn a play. Such as, "Where you look," said Zorn, "and how you look. You don't look so far off that you can't get back."

The single biggest criticism of Campbell is the lack of scoring; critics charge him with responsibility for the fact that the offense grinds to a halt when it gets close to the end zone. Here again, the stats are inconclusive: Campbell has thrown twice as many touchdowns as interceptions, an extremely promising ratio, and nobody who has started 14 games has been picked off fewer times. The problem is he has only 12 scores vs. six interceptions, which perhaps suggests an excess of caution.

In fact, Campbell complains of feeling a sense of pressure that perhaps inhibits the offense. "We've been playing with a lot of tension, a lot of tightness," he said. "We've got to go out there and play free."

Zorn believes Campbell's tension comes from his reluctance to make the glaring mistake. "Wanting to be great," Zorn said, "Wanting to do well, and then being frustrated when it's not working smoothly."

Perhaps one of the more telling statistics is that Campbell has delivered the ball to Cooley enough to give the tight end a personal-best 73 catches. Yet just one of those has been a touchdown, a fact that is baffling, and which may suggest the extent to which Campbell has been hesitant to force issues.

"It's almost a lack of confidence all the way around," Cooley said. "Someone has to say, 'Give me the ball, I'm going to make a play.' And Jason has to say, 'I'm throwing it in there.' "

Zorn insists if Campbell is given time to grow into the offense, he will develop into a more assertive and charismatic quarterback. The things that hamper him, and slow down the operation of the offense, will gradually resolve into a more "synergistic" performance. Quarterbacking, Zorn explained, simply hasn't become an everyday job to Campbell yet. As opposed to "a one-day-a-week super stressful thing."

Until Campbell has been given time to learn the job properly, and to make his performances commonplace, it's unfair to judge him. And we wouldn't be accurate if we did.

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