By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 12, 2009
Rookie quarterback Chase Daniel was busy chatting following a recent practice, so he didn't hear the footsteps from behind. In one quick motion, Colt Brennan reached out and slapped Daniel's helmet out of his hand. "Rookie!" said Brennan, who for the sake of accuracy, has all of one season under his belt.
"Hey!" Daniel said.
"I've never gotten to do that," Brennan said, as he tore off to the locker room. "It's my first time."
"Second year," conceded Daniel, his helmet on the ground. "Vet."
For the past two weeks, the pecking order among the four quarterbacks in Washington Redskins camp has been clear: Jason Campbell, the leader, the starter; Todd Collins, the reliable, experienced backup; Brennan, the young slinger, not quite ready for prime time; and Daniel, at least a Hail Mary or two from the 53-man roster.
But beginning with Thursday night's preseason opener at Baltimore, coaches will carefully scrutinize every snap, every huddle and every routine throw to see if a change in the depth chart is necessary.
Thursday's game means something different to each of the Redskins' quarterbacks. Campbell isn't expected to get much playing time, which means the other three will spend most of four quarters trying to impress coaches.
"Subconsciously, I realize that Thursday is the start of the next big test," said Brennan, a sixth-round draft pick in 2008. "I have all four preseason dates circled in my head. This is what I've been waiting for."
Zorn has spent the majority of every practice throughout camp shadowing the quarterbacks through drills, so he knows as well as anyone where each currently stands. While training camp has helped players learn the offense, Zorn is curious to see his quarterbacks execute it in a game situation.
He had said entering camp Collins was his backup, but Zorn left open the possibility someone else could win the job.
That's all the opening Brennan needed. He has been going through two-a-day practices these past two weeks determined to improve on last season, when he was designated the team's third-string quarterback for all 16 games. He has never taken a snap in a regular season game.
Last year during the preseason, Brennan earned the devotion of many Redskins fans, completing 36 of 53 passes for 411 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Still, he said his rookie season was more about survival than anything else.
"I'm, like, galaxies better," said Brennan, who set 31 NCAA records while at Hawaii. "The understanding of the offense, my comfort level with the offense, the people around me. I'm so much more confident with everything."
He is also more comfortable with his body. Injury-free most of his life, Brennan had surgery on his hip before his rookie year and afterward on his knee. He has also added about 20 pounds since his senior year at Hawaii, at the behest of coaches.
"This year, it's a totally different atmosphere, philosophy and attitude," he said. "Now I've proven myself. I've shown people that I belong at this level. Now it's about making the next stop, moving up the depth chart."
Of course, to do that, he'll have to overtake a friend, a man Brennan has worked alongside for the past year and someone who has taken a personal interest in Brennan's development.
Collins has been a Week 1 starter just once in his 14 seasons. So his role entering this year's preseason opener is familiar -- a proven quarterback starting ahead of him and a hungry one fighting behind him.
"The thing is, occasionally you get caught chasing the wrong guy," he said. "If you're trying to be only the second-best quarterback on the team, that's not going to work out for you."
Collins knows the value of the backup role better than most. During his career, he has been in training camps slated as the No. 1 quarterback, the No. 2 and the No. 3. He has always competed, though, like he is trying for the starting job.
"As I've learned over the years, if they don't give you the opportunity to start, you still have to prepare the same. Your expectation should still be to play like a starter. Look what happened a couple of years ago, I had to go in there and play," said Collins, who took over for an injured Campbell late in 2008 and started in the Redskins' playoff loss at Seattle.
Perhaps complicating matters for Collins is the disparity in contracts. If Campbell wasn't able to start for some reason, the team might not be ready to turn the reins over to Brennan.
But Collins turns 38 in November, and he is set to earn $2 million this season, the second year of a three-year contract. By comparison, Brennan is due to make $385,000 this season.
"There's guys making a lot more and guys making a lot less," Collins said. "I don't know where mine fits into the scheme of things, but I know if they feel like they need you, they'll keep you."
Still, the team will carry three quarterbacks this year, and it's not likely it would choose to start the year with two reserves who have never played a down in the regular season.
Coaches like Collins's experience and his consistent temperament. In contrast, Brennan is brash, ambitious and talks openly about how he has prepared his entire life for this slow climb up an NFL depth chart.
Brennan spent most of his offseason working out at Redskins Park, though he did return to California and Hawaii briefly. His focus hasn't been on his throwing motion, rather his feet. At Hawaii, he usually operated out of a shotgun formation, which limited the necessary footwork. Growing up in Southern California, he is familiar with the West Coast offense, but the technique is different in Zorn's system.
California quarterbacks such as Brennan, Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart grew up learning the five-step drop as a combination of three big steps and two smaller ones. Zorn wants his quarterbacks taking five similar-sized steps, which has been a whole new rhythm for Brennan to master.
Zorn said he hasn't been shy to tell his young pupil when he is not doing things correctly. He calls Brennan a "work in progress" and said this preseason is especially important for him.
Brennan said he has also felt pushed by having a quarterback in camp gunning for his roster spot. After setting school records at Missouri, Daniel signed a free agent deal when draft day passed in April and his phone remained silent. Daniel is in camp knowing he is a long shot.
"I'm trying to pick up as much information from them as I can and help me get better," Daniel said, noting he has earned occasional compliments from Zorn and offensive assistant Chris Meidt.
"I even got a 'good job' from Vinny," Daniel said of Vinny Cerrato, the team's executive vice president of football operations. "You can't take that as any indicator whatsoever. Like I said, they can cut you the next day. So I just got to keep a level head and keep playing like I know I can."
Staff writer Bill Oram contributed to this report.