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Thomas Boswell on the Redskins and the Patience Required With Low Expectations

With the offense sputtering around him, especially inside the 20-yard line, Jason Campbell cuts a solitary figure.
With the offense sputtering around him, especially inside the 20-yard line, Jason Campbell cuts a solitary figure. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
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After that celebrating, however, there will be furrowed brows. "I have got to look at this thing very hard because it is my responsibility," he said after 362 yards of offense, and a decent statistical day by Jason Campbell (23 for 35, 242 yards, no turnovers) resulted in only three field goals. "I can wave all kind of magic wands, but I've got to come up the right play and put our guys in the right position."

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You almost pity the Redskins' offensive players, so many of whom have been together since well back in the Joe Gibbs II period and are painfully aware of their limits, especially close to the opponent's goal line. When was this team last efficient in the red zone, I asked Antwaan Randle El. Late in '06, maybe?

"I can't even remember when," he said, after trying to think of various games in different years. "Not this year, for sure."

The player at the heart of the problem is Campbell. He can march a team up and down the field reasonably well, as attested by his 84.2 career passer rating. And he is actually the second-best quarterback in NFL history at avoiding interceptions -- just 2.1 percent of his throws get picked off.

But through all 38 of his starts, the same ugly thread has run. He can't get his team across the goal line. Only six times in those 38 games has his offense scored even three touchdowns. And in his starts, the Redskins have averaged 1.72 touchdowns per game with their offense on the field. They lack a tall, talented wide receiver to catch ally-oop passes. Clinton Portis is their only dangerous back, so their goal-line attack lacks variety. Tiny wide receivers Santana Moss and Randle El get erased in heavy traffic. Foes focus on shutting down big tight end Chris Cooley.

All of this, combined with Campbell's bullet passes, which sometimes overpower receivers at close quarters, and his fear of red-zone turnovers -- drilled into him by every offensive coordinator -- has culminated in one stunning statistic.

One of the critical ways to measure an NFL quarterback is his percentage of touchdown passes. In all eras, from Sammy Baugh (6.2 percent of his passes were touchdowns) to the present, the great passers know how to finish a drive. A typical touchdown percentage for a star is between 4.5 percent and 6 percent. Below 4 percent is poor. Zorn himself, as well as ex-Redskins coach Steve Spurrier, were only at 3.5 percent.

Out of all the 219 passers in NFL history who have thrown at least 900 passes, Campbell ranks in a five-way tie for 201st at 3.1 percent. Only 14 quarterbacks, all nonentities, rank lower. Is the flaw in Campbell? Or, as on Sunday, when both Devin Thomas and Mike Sellers missed possible touchdown catches from Campbell, is his paucity of scoring passes merely a reflection of an ill-built red-zone offense?

Give Campbell credit. He soldiers on, year after year explaining why so many drives, so many scoring chances, result in so few points. But it can't be lost on him that even Zorn seems have lost some confidence. In this game, on third and goal from the Rams 5-yard line, Zorn called for a pass -- but not from Campbell. Instead, he had Portis, whose passes are more like shot-puts, make the attempt -- which failed.

"We'll get killed again tomorrow," said Campbell, meaning the inevitable Monday-morning quarterbacking (like this) that is a precious part of Washington life. "Take it for what it's worth.

"Would you rather be on the other side [of 9-7]? Oh, everyone expects a lot [before the game]. But this is the Rams team that broke our season last year [with a 19-17 victory in FedEx]. We'll take the win."

Perhaps all those who hope the Redskins do well should feel that way. It's easy to wish that the Redskins were a better team. But, year after year, they aren't. The same problems and limits define them season after season. Now, if anything, the situation is even more dire with veteran right guard Randy Thomas likely out for the season. The last thing the Redskins needed was a depleted line. "That hurts a lot," Campbell murmured.

For the Redskins and their fans, this is a difficult line to walk. Too much realism seldom helps a football team. How do you convince yourself to take so much physical risk, week after week, simply to be pretty good? The hope of becoming exceptional is the ultimate carrot, even for mules.

"I am very pleased with how much we are progressing," Zorn said.

He said it with a straight face. He's a farmer without a choice.


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