By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
The turning point, Redskins Coach Jim Zorn said, came after the loss to Kansas City in mid-October. Since the defeat against the Chiefs, who were 0-5 when they played the Redskins, things have been smoother, more comfortable, more efficient.
But when Zorn points to that game as the season's most pivotal, he's not referring to management's decision to shake up the offensive play-calling and hand a headset to consultant Sherman Lewis. That loss didn't change Zorn as much as the coach says it affected quarterback Jason Campbell, whom he'd benched midway through the 14-6 loss.
"That was a turning point for him," Zorn said. "He had to make up his mind of how he's going to play this game. He's been tough-minded, if you will, on the line of scrimmage, in and out of the huddle, getting hit and getting back up."
Campbell had another strong outing in Sunday's 34-13 win at Oakland, completing 16 of 28 passes for 222 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. He had a passer rating of 106.5, the second straight week he topped 100, a feat he hadn't done since the opening weeks of the 2008 season. After nearly two full seasons in Zorn's offense, Campbell says he's comfortable and feels "like the game's really slowed down."
A first-round pick in 2005, Campbell didn't see any action his rookie season but has seen his numbers rise every year since. And he's on pace again this season to improve on last year's statistics in all of the key categories: touchdowns, yards, completions, quarterback rating.
In fact, his numbers through 13 games this season are better than some notable NFL quarterbacks managed through 16 games a year ago. He has more completions this season (260) than Joe Flacco or Jake Delhomme did in 2008 and more yards (2,946) than either Marc Bulger or Kerry Collins managed. Campbell has thrown for as many touchdowns (17) as Matt Schaub and Ben Roethlisberger, and has a higher passer rating (89.0) than Donovan McNabb, Eli Manning or Brett Favre did to end last season.
Despite Campbell's increased production, his future in Washington remains as murky as ever. Campbell is a restricted free agent after this season, which means the Redskins can match any other team's contract offer. There have been no declarations of support from team management, and Vinny Cerrato, the Redskins' executive vice president of football operations, has scouted at least two quarterbacks from next spring's draft class.
With his own future a hot topic of speculation, Zorn was asked Monday about Campbell's role beyond the final three games, given his improved play. At this point, there's not much Zorn could say.
"We're right in the middle of this football season, and as a head coach, I'm not going to try to speculate where he is in the league, as far as franchise QB," Zorn said. "I know for this football team, he's playing very well. This is his second year in this offense, and you can see glimpses of what this offense can do. And he's a big part of that."
Zorn's praise for his quarterback was measured, and he made a point to highlight the improved play around Campbell. Second-year tight end Fred Davis has four touchdown receptions in the past three games. Wide receiver Devin Thomas posted the first 100-yard game of his career against New Orleans. And Quinton Ganther, the team's fourth starting running back of the year, had more touchdowns Sunday in Oakland (two) than Clinton Portis managed in eight games before suffering a season-ending concussion (one).
Meanwhile, the offensive line has lost three players to the injured reserve list but still has had promising moments. Though the Raiders got to Campbell three times on Sunday, Campbell was sacked just two times in the previous three weeks.
"It's not solely Jason," Zorn said. "We're getting better protection. We're running the ball. So we got a balance to our offense. I'm not trying to take anything away from him either. Certainly he is playing better."
Though the cast of contributors in the huddle has changed -- only four offensive starters in Oakland were also in the Week 1 starting lineup -- Campbell agrees with Zorn, deflecting individual praise.
"It's not just me improving, I feel like the guys around me have found a way where they're playing with a lot of confidence," he said. "We're all playing together, as a unit. There's no selfish players on this team right now, offensively or defensively."
For Zorn, it goes back to the loss at Kansas City. After adamantly defending his quarterback following poor outings against Tampa Bay and at Carolina, Zorn couldn't stomach what he saw against the Chiefs. Campbell was 9 of 16 for 89 yards, one interception and no touchdowns in the first half. He didn't play in the second.
Zorn hasn't seen that same lost quarterback since.
"When he saw it, he saw why he got taken out," Zorn said. "I think that he, in some of the conversations that we've had, he was determined to not have that happen again."
The game-planning was changed significantly to aid Campbell. Gone were seven-step drops, and receivers now focus on more short timing routes. Campbell's average completion this season is only 5.1 yards, which ranks No. 30 among NFL quarterbacks. The average yards-after-catch posted by receivers is 6.2 yards, which is tops in the league.
He has exhibited greater pocket awareness, isn't rushing as many passes, has increased confidence to audible and shows greater field vision. On the team's second touchdown in Oakland, for example, Campbell calmly went through his progressions, finally spotting his third option -- Davis, in single coverage. He zipped the pass to his tight end and the 17-yard touchdown broke a 10-10 tie.
The gains are conspicuous, and as Campbell has improved, so, too, have the teammates around him. The reward is merely continued growth, which is tough to put on a mantle.
"We know that we're not going to the playoffs," Campbell said, "but at the same time, we're building."