By Thomas Boswell
Monday, November 30, 2009
Jason Campbell hadn't yet lost consciousness. That sudden blackness, courtesy of Eagles defensive end Juqua Parker, would swallow him a second later. And he had not yet lost feeling in his left arm. All he knew was that the hundredths of a second in a collapsing pocket were down to an even smaller number. On fourth and one with 1 minute 9 seconds to play and the Redskins behind 27-24, he had to throw the blasted football. So he aimed for Santana Moss, flashing open beyond the first-down sticks, and, just as the Parker Building fell on him, he fired his pass.
Like everything about this Redskins season, 3-8 and spiraling down, as well as much of Campbell's career with the team, his best effort came up short, bouncing in front of Moss.
Campbell's face stayed pressed against the sod for a minute or more, the fingers of his throwing hand tapping the ground as though thrumming them would somehow help him regain consciousness and, in time, sensation in his arm.
When the game ended minutes later, Donovan McNabb, whose stats were similar to Campbell's -- 22 for 37 for 231 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions and a touchdown run -- pulled the Redskins quarterback's head close to his and said, "Keep fighting."
That's all that's left. Keep fighting. Hang in. Spit in the Broncos' eyes and beat them two weeks ago. Punch the Cowboys in the mouth but lose by a point last week. Bloody the Eagles' nose, take a 24-16 lead with 11:42 to play, but blow the lead.
There are many reasons why the battered, short-handed Redskins have, for the last month, continued to battle and, despite their scores, actually play like a team that a fan could support with a clear conscience. But nobody is more central than Campbell.
It's time for the town and the franchise itself to appreciate the 27-year-old, who is a restricted free agent after this season, for what he is -- a competent, gritty, middle-of-the-pack quarterback -- and not damn him for what he'll probably never become -- a top-shelf star. It's time to love the one you're with, 'cause the ones you dream about are nowhere in sight. And they aren't coming soon.
There are 12 quarterbacks on the planet who are clearly better than the one the Redskins already have. Their names are Brady, Favre, Brees, Manning, Manning, Rodgers, Rivers, Warner, Roethlisberger, McNabb and, probably, Romo and Schaub, too.
"No team lets those guys get away from them," said the Redskins' Cornelius Griffin. So, they're not headed to Washington.
There are also about a dozen other quarterbacks in the NFL who are just about as good as Campbell, give or take a bit. Statistically, they are grouped around his passer rating of 85.3 -- quarterbacks like Kyle Orton, Joe Flacco, Carson Palmer and Matt Hasselbeck.
But there are probably 10 NFL teams who would love to have Campbell, make him a free agent offer and see if the Redskins would match it or let him go. What, they'll wonder, would Campbell do if he had a better offensive line in front of him? What if he had more than one feared wide receiver in Moss? What if he played in any system except the West Coast offense, which, as many concede by now, is poorly suited to his strengths?
Certainly Coach Jim Zorn, even though his quick-quick-quicker style of offense isn't a fit for the strong-armed, 6-foot-5 Campbell, knows what he has. "Jason played very well. The two picks were unfortunate," said Zorn, adding that one of the interceptions came when Asante Samuel "broke coverage and put his team at risk," yet made a big play by jumping a Redskins route for an interception.
"He battled and played hard. I was proud of how he played. We moved the ball and made some excellent plays," Zorn added after seeing Campbell engineer two 80-yard scoring drives.
"We've got to appreciate the guys who are here. Sometimes you bring people in and they're not whom you thought they were," said Rock Cartwright, the special teams leader who has had to step up as starting running back. "Jason is a heckuva of a quarterback. He's battle-tested."
After this season, Campbell must feel like it was the Battle of the Bulge. "Physically, kinda worn down," he said after either changing plays at the line or scrambling to create touchdown passes of four yards to Moss and 10 yards to Fred Davis. "I'll get back up next week. We have a lot of guys who are missing [with injuries]. . . . I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one who's hurting."
On that final offensive play, Campbell said, he "got slammed down on my head before getting blacked out for a second, getting the breath knocked out. And my left arm was numb. But it's football. That's the game we play."
No one in the Redskins' locker room talks about Campbell's specific skills. In this game, he missed three receivers who were open and botched a couple of short touch passes that might have moved the chains. But he's also become one of the NFL's mobile passers, moving in the pocket or rolling out. What's noted, however, is his presence, his field generalship.
"Jason is a tough guy. He can take the heat. And he's a leader. That gets missed," said Griffin, one of the team's core personalities. "It's killing us to come close and not get these wins. We tell each other, 'Be a man.' We'll show up every week. We can play with anybody left on our schedule."
The Redskins seem most interested in two young quarterbacks in the draft -- Jimmy Clausen of Notre Dame and Colt McCoy of Texas. Neither, compared to Campbell, looks superior in arm strength, size or toughness. One veteran Redskins linemen, when their names were mentioned in the same sentence with Campbell, just curled his lip and said, "This is the NFL."
His meaning? The hot college boys come and go. Mostly, they go. The flop rate is astronomical. As for the unknowns that arrive undrafted then become stars -- like Warner and Romo -- that's like catching lightning in a bottle. Even if the Redskins draft another Colt or a Jimmy, he's probably not going to be polished enough to be their quarterback for two or three years. Right now, the Redskins have a lot of problems, starting at the top of the organization.
"Jason isn't the problem," Cartwright said. And quarterback, as this close battle with the Eagles showed again, isn't the position that needs to be fixed first.
With just five games left to play, the Redskins' brain trust needs to figure out how it feels about Campbell. After the way the Redskins have stayed competitive the last 3 1/2 games, with Campbell leading an offense that amounts to an NFL JV, he's going to get free agent offers, probably better ones than the Redskins suspect. Already this year, his performance is surpassing Jay Cutler and Mark Sanchez -- the players the Redskins preferred to him last offseason.
Will the Redskins, who always think of themselves as an elite team and deserving of the very best, be willing to face reality? They are 3-8 and headed toward more defeats. When healthy, they played worse than they have when depleted, so "when we get healthy again next year" is a rationalization that won't fly.
There's no championship run in this team's immediate future. The Redskins have lots to fix, many positions to which to devote resources. They can keep the team's most vital position -- quarterback -- stable just by matching the highest rival offer and keeping their restricted free agent.
Will they be wise enough to do it?