The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Jason Campbell still could be an NFL quarterback; why he’s okay without it

Jason Campbell leaves the field after a loss to the Eagles in 2009. (Jonathan Newton – The Washington Post)

People sometimes ask Jason Campbell why he isn’t in the NFL. Why he didn’t play for Cincinnati or Baltimore when those teams expressed interest during the offseason. Why he didn’t pursue a job with Dallas or Indianapolis when those teams reached out during this current season. Why a 33-year old who still feels healthy is now playing golf, spending time with family members and trying to figure out his second career rather than wringing a few more years out of his first.

They ask how he can turn down NFL money, and the fame and attention of pro sports. When you listen to his answer, this doesn’t sound like a particularly hard decision.

“If all you’re chasing is money, then you’re headed down the wrong path,” Campbell said this week. “Dealing with all the ups and downs of football and the political part, the fun and joy kind of got taken away from me. Family started to mean a whole lot more to me, because no matter what happens in life, they’re always there. … Could I have played another two, three years? Yeah, I probably could have played another two, three years. But would I have been happy for another two, three years? If you can’t put your 100 percent into it, then I wouldn’t advise you to do something.”

I called Campbell because I knew he would be back in town this weekend, and would soon be in the same room as Kirk Cousins. Campbell remains close with CSN’s Eric Shuster, a fixture in the local sports world whose annual charity event in honor of his mother is Monday evening at Bethesda’s American Tap Room.

Cousins is among a host of prominent athletes expected to attend, and because Campbell is the last Washington quarterback to start an entire season, I had a few questions. What does instability do to a quarterback’s mind? What’s it like when every game is treated as a referendum on your job? How should a quarterback navigate Washington’s cauldron of pressure? His answers eventually veered toward the philosophical, but let’s start with the football question.

“Most cities I’ve been in, the quarterback position is very pinpointed, but I think in D.C. it’s another level,” Campbell said. “Everybody has opinions about your job. It’s kind of weird — so many people have so much input on your job, and there’s nothing you can do about it but just try to stay positive and keep looking forward.”

Which is what Campbell tried to do. That wasn’t easy, though. There was the 2007 playoff season, when he missed Washington’s postseason run because of injury. After a coaching change and a hot start — which had pundits speculating about Campbell’s MVP credentials — the 2008 season ended with a .500 record. Next came the 2009 fiasco, when a revolving door of play-callers led to tension on the practice field, uncertainty in the meeting rooms, and months of mayhem, along with seven losses by less than a touchdown.

“There were times I couldn’t even think about the game or focus on the game, there was so much going so much going on around me in practice. It was like, good grief,” Campbell said. “It was just a whirlwind. How can you get better as a quarterback? How can you grow?”

Soon, Mike Shanahan arrived. Campbell, who by then considered himself embedded in Washington, looked forward to getting the team back on track. Instead, he was traded to Oakland.

“I was disappointed,” he said. “It felt like I had so much left in Washington, things I wanted to prove. I felt like each year I was getting better and better, even throughout the chaos. If we could just get things stable, it felt like we could have had a chance.”

He was nervous, too, about going to Oakland, a place people said careers went to die. But in his first season there, he was 8-5 as a starter. The Raiders hadn’t won that many games in nearly a decade. The next year, Campbell helped Oakland to a 4-2 start before breaking a collarbone. That would be his last real shot as an NFL starter.

The Raiders traded for Carson Palmer shortly after Campbell’s injury, and then came three new cities in three years. You probably don’t remember the specifics, but he does. How his only start for Chicago came on the road against a ferocious San Francisco defense. How he was told he would be a mentor for Brandon Weeden in Cleveland but wound up starting much of the season for a franchise that chews up quarterbacks faster than the Redskins. How he went 29-for-44 for 391 yards, 3 touchdowns and no interceptions in New England, but no one noticed because the Browns lost by a point on a last-second missed field-goal attempt. How he injured his ribs against the Ravens and “could hardly breathe” for days, but still wound up throwing 56 passes in Cleveland’s next game.

Coaches told him how much they appreciated him fighting through the injury, how much they respected his effort. But after the season came another coaching change, and Campbell was released.

“You put your own health at risk, and it feels like [some officials] just don’t even care. I think that hurts you even more,” he said. “You’re like, ‘Well, what was I out there fighting for when I was hurt?’ Other teams won’t know when they watch the film that his ribs were really hurt. They’re not going to know that. But you fight through that type of stuff and then they’re like, we don’t care anymore. It just feels like you’re a paper bag that they just crumble up and throw away.”

Campbell spent the next year as a backup in Cincinnati. When he signed there, more than 30 players on the roster had been drafted by the team. This made him think again about his time in less stable organizations.

“The only thing that drove me crazy about that is it’s a proven fact: The teams that win year in and year out, they build through the draft; they get their guys together and let them grow together,” Campbell said. “They grew together; they went through tough times together; they were in the same system for a while. That stuff makes a big difference. Every time I felt I made two steps forward, at the end of the year I had to take two steps back.”

Those years of turmoil could make you feel bitter about the sport, make you steep yourself in regrets and what-ifs. Campbell had always been a success, and now he felt like the prime of his NFL career “was kind of ripped from me.” The series of business decisions started tearing down his love for football, and made him wonder why other quarterbacks got to glide straight into winning situations, or seemed to get more chances to succeed.

Then came this past offseason. Two of Campbell’s close family members passed away, both at young ages. One — a cousin in California with a wife and child — was battling cancer. The cousin kept sending Campbell text messages about how he would fight the disease until the end; he kept getting out of bed as long as he could, with a positive attitude and without excuses. He also made Campbell reconsider his own career.

“Sometimes we can look at things from our own view, but do we take time to look at things through the eyes of others?” Campbell asked. “He kind of showed me, man, no matter what you do in life, make sure it’s something you enjoy doing and be true to yourself. I just thought, I want to make sure I’m being true to myself, being true to the people I love, being true to the people who love me back. We can make excuses about a whole lot of things — why did this happen to me? Truth be told, we shouldn’t be complaining at all when we can walk around, when we have our health.”

So Campbell decided he needed, at a minimum, to take a break. He wanted to spend time with family, to think about his future. He wanted to find something he would be passionate about, “make sure I’m making an impact on the people around me.” He felt he had “kind of lost myself as a player and as a person” during those stressful and frenetic years, that “I kind of needed to be healed in some areas.” His friends and relatives liked watching him play football, “but they also want me to be happy — that’s the most important thing to them,” he said. He is still open to playing football, but the right offer is more important than any offer.

Which is why Campbell was on a golf course Thursday afternoon instead of an NFL practice field, and why he’s now more open about what life is like for an NFL quarterback. He gets irritated when people talk about quarterback wins and losses, as if his performance in New England that day would have been any different had a kicker made a last-second kick. (“You get so tired of hearing about the quarterback,” he said.) He knows it’s unfair that no one cares how many of your offensive linemen are injured, or what personal issues you might be playing through. He knows, too, that the world isn’t objective, that in some corners, “before you even start your job, you’re already disliked.” He accepts that every quarterback won’t get the same opportunities, that you can’t worry about the big contracts given to other players, that it isn’t productive to wonder how much different things could have been.

So he doesn’t regret being drafted in Washington. He formed relationships with kids here through his work with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, spent time with legends such as Sonny Jurgensen and Joe Theismann, felt like he was embraced by the community, “like I was a part of the community.”

And if Campbell does offer any guidance to Cousins next week, it would probably go something like this: Don’t listen to the critics, don’t worry about trying to please everyone and don’t waste any time on regret.

“I just feel like I was put in the D.C. area for a reason,” Campbell said. “Playing in D.C. felt like home. I’ve been to other places and I didn’t get that same feeling. … I have no bitterness. I just wish things turned out well. But the people I met and the things I was able to do in the community, I wouldn’t take that back.”