Make way for new gun in town

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TAMPA, Fla.

Jason Campbell started at quarterback for the Redskins yesterday — and the world didn’t end. His first pass wasn’t intercepted and returned for a touchdown; on the contrary, it was a perfectly thrown 60-yard laser. Unfortunately, the intended receiver was Brandon Lloyd, one of the team’s $30 million boondoggles. Instead of Washington 7, Tampa Bay 0, it was Washington, second-and-10.

Given the solemnity with which the quarterback switch was announced last week, of course, you would have thought the world had ended — rather than just the regrettable 2-year reign of Mark Brunell. The look on Joe Gibbs’ ashen face suggested that things were destined to get worse for the Redskins before they got better. Wasn’t it always thus when a kid with zero NFL experience replaced a savvy 14-year veteran?

But the happy truth, from a Washington standpoint, is that Brunell wasn’t missed at all against the Bucs — unless you’re a connoisseur of the screen pass. Yes, the Snydermen lost again, this time 20-17 to drop their record to 3-7, but the kid was hardly the culprit. His 19-for-34 performance, good for 196 yards and a pair of touchdowns, was more than acceptable for a pro debut, even if the numbers included some fourth-quarter padding.

And his stats would have been better, I’ll just point out, if Lloyd hadn’t been so ham-handed. They also would have been better if Santana Moss and Clinton Portis had suited up. Anybody think Moss would have dropped that bomb? Anybody think Portis would have been held to 18 rushing yards, as Ladell Betts was?

“He was poised,” Chris Samuels said of Campbell. “It wasn’t like he was a rookie quarterback out there. You would have thought he was back at Auburn when he went undefeated. He’s the future of this organization.”

Brunell, meanwhile, is the past … of the Jacksonville Jaguars organization.

But let’s get back to Campbell’s first pass — first play, actually — because it says so much about the difference between him and No. 8. Obviously, offensive boss Al Saunders grasped the symbolism of the moment; he could have called a nice, safe run off tackle, but the occasion, he decided, cried out for fireworks. Too bad Lloyd forgot to light the fuse.

Still, nothing says, “There’s a new quarterback in town,” quite like a bomb on the first snap. Brunell, after all, had been constantly criticized for his conservatism, his reluctance to challenge a defense downfield. With a single flick of his wrist, Campbell showed that the vertical passing game was back with a vengeance.

That’s good news because what’s the point of having wideouts like Moss and Antwaan Randle El if you’re merely going to use them to run 5-yard crossing routes? Under Campbell, the Redskins looked like a real NFL offense rather than some dink-and-dunk outfit from the Western Athletic Conference. Most of his passing yardage, you may have noticed, came before the catch, not after it (unlike his predecessor).

“The guy’s going to take a shot down the field,” said Chris Cooley, the recipient of Campbell’s first NFL touchdown pass. “It gets you excited.”

In the next breath, however, Cooley explained that Tampa Bay’s defense invites those downfield shots by playing eight men so close to the line. To try to exploit this, he said, “We switched our game plan a little bit [yesterday]. You can get [receivers] behind them.”

Even so, this was the club Brunell threw for 41 yards against in the playoffs last January. Campbell almost had that many on the first play. He also came out in the third quarter, which has been a veritable wasteland for the Redskins of late, and marched them 74 yards for a 10-3 lead. The highlights included a 14-yard pass to Randle El on third-and-7, a 17-yarder to Thrash on second-and-10 and a 3-yard flip to Cooley for the touchdown on third-and-goal.

“I felt comfortable the whole game,” Campbell said. “I didn’t feel any pressure.”

If he was nervous, he hid it well. Both touchdown passes — the other being a 4-yard toss to Todd Yoder with 32 seconds left — came in close quarters, near the goal line, with the Bucs bearing down in on him. In each case, he waited patiently until someone came open and delivered the ball.

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