Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell shines on third-down plays, but falters at finish

(Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
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By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 23, 2009

ARLINGTON, TEX. -- There was a chance for Jason Campbell to save his season Sunday afternoon, to salvage a meaningful win for his Washington Redskins. He had the ball on his own 8-yard line, perhaps 60 yards between him and a reasonable field goal attempt. He had 2 minutes 35 seconds remaining, plenty of time for an NFL quarterback to lead a game-winning drive.

"I'm still thinking we're going to go down and get a field goal," Campbell said Sunday evening, after he had changed into a gray three-button suit. "Two minutes is what we do very well. . . . It wasn't pressure because there's still a lot of time on the clock. We felt like we could just continue to run our offense, move the ball, do our no-huddle, do two-minute."

Some quarterbacks seem destined to author those kinds of drives. Indeed, Dallas's Tony Romo -- who had performed miserably for much of the day -- had just figured out how to complete 7 of 8 passes, the last for a touchdown, on a crisp possession that gave the Cowboys a 7-6 lead.

The throngs at Cowboys Stadium, which had booed Romo and the offense just a few possessions earlier, erupted. Everything that happened previously was, instantly, forgotten and forgiven.

By Monday morning in Washington, all will be remembered about Campbell. A day in which he might have staved off even his harshest critics -- one in which he played behind an increasingly battered line, stood in and completed throws that didn't look to be there and had the Redskins in position to win -- ended instead with a tipped pass, an interception and a loss by that 7-6 margin.

"This is a job that we chose to do," Campbell said afterward. His tone reflected his reality, that he knows he will hear much about what he did not do rather than what he did. The record shows that he completed 24 of 37 passes for 256 yards, finding seven receivers. The record also shows that he did not get the Redskins into the end zone when a single touchdown would have won the game, and that his final meaningful pass attempt of the day didn't find Santana Moss, his intended receiver, but instead was tipped in the air by a Dallas lineman named Stephen Bowen and picked off.

"Jason had a couple of really big hot throws, a couple of scrambles that got us out," Redskins Coach Jim Zorn said. "It was very unfortunate on that very last throw that was batted and tipped."

Such is Campbell's fate. Playing without two members of his original starting offensive line -- Chris Samuels and Randy Thomas, both done for the year -- as well as Pro Bowl tight end Chris Cooley and Pro Bowl running back Clinton Portis, Campbell said he felt like he had to take more of the burden against the Cowboys. That was particularly true after Portis's backup, Ladell Betts, was lost for the game with a knee injury in the first quarter.

Campbell said he also knew that he would occasionally need to release the ball calmly even as he was about to get crushed immediately after his release. The result: Just one sack taken on the day, even behind a line that doesn't resemble the one that opened the season, and a perfect 13-for-13 passing on third downs.

"I just felt in a rhythm," Campbell said. "I knew they were still trying to bring pressure, but I was always trying to find a soft zone in the backfield. I just kept telling the line, 'Just run them up field, give me an opportunity to step up in the pocket and continue to make plays.' . . . A lot of throws I had to get rid of quick."

That rhythm allowed Campbell to have at least a small measure of confidence when the Redskins got the ball back after the Cowboys' lone touchdown. Campbell began the drive with a seven-yard completion to running back Rock Cartwright, then another seven-yarder to wide receiver Antwaan Randle El, a play that picked up a first down and stopped the clock. When Campbell hit Randle El again, this time on the right sideline, the Redskins had pulled out to their 33-yard line, and had reached the two-minute warning with plenty of time to move into field-goal range and win the game.

"We felt like we'd do it," Cartwright said. "Jason was making good throws, and we moved the ball."

With a first down and 1:59 left, the Redskins called a play designed to get Moss, their speediest receiver, the ball on the left side. But DeMarcus Ware, Dallas's ferocious defensive end, was lined up on that side. He faced Washington left tackle Levi Jones, who was signed as a free agent last month but now finds himself manning the line's most important position.

Ware burst to Jones's inside and all but ran right by him. But Campbell had a solution. "I stepped to the side," he said. Running to his left, he still had Moss open.

"We had Santana coming back inside," Zorn said. "And he can run with the ball after he catches it."

Both Zorn and Campbell ruefully reviewed the play in their minds afterward. Zorn sighed. "We'll see it on video," he said. Campbell figured Moss could have picked up 15 or 20 yards.

"He was coming open," Campbell said. "And right when I was throwing the ball, I'm not sure who it was, they got the hand up and knocked the ball in the air."

The "who" was Bowen. He leaped as Campbell released the throw, and batted the ball with his left hand. It floated downfield, and settled into the arms of Dallas linebacker Anthony Spencer.

It was Campbell's only interception. It came at the only time he couldn't afford one. And it sent him back to the locker room, another chance to lead a game-winning drive gone by.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company