- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 26, 2007

During a rare week off this summer, Jason Campbell was visiting his parents in Mississippi when several friends came to the house. He turned on the television and came across highlights of the NFC Championship game from the 1983 season.

The Redskins edged the San Francisco 49ers to reach their second straight Super Bowl, which they lost to the Los Angeles Raiders. Watching the NFL Films footage for just a few minutes got Campbell excited. It offered a glimpse of what football can be like in Washington when the team is winning.

“You could tell how excited the fans were — it made the hair on my arms pop up, seeing how the atmosphere was back then,” he says. “That was big-time football. That’s what I want to be a part of: big-time games in front of our fans.”

Big-time games at home have been rare for the Redskins: They’ve played only one postseason game at home since 1992. And let’s not get started on the quarterback upheaval.

But Campbell wants to change all that. He wants to be the long-term answer at quarterback. He wants to join with the rest of the team’s young core to play high-stakes football every December and January.

The D.C. pro sports scene is dominated by under-30 stars — the Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin, the Wizards’ Gilbert Arenas, the Nationals’ Ryan Zimmerman — but it’s Campbell who faces the most pressure. This is a football town in general and a quarterback town in particular. The Redskins dominate the chatter, win or lose.

Campbell won two of his seven starts to end last season, but he produced enough good moments to provide a bright spot in what otherwise was a debacle. He also earned a shot to lead the Redskins, who open the season on Sunday at home against the Miami Dolphins.

“I want to be the guy that helps the other 52 players get this program turned around and get the Redskins going in the right direction,” Campbell says. “I want to hear positive things about this team when I go around town. We feel we can do some special things in D.C. and get it back to when the Redskins had winning season after winning season and were playing — and winning — big games.

“I understand that’s it’s not always going to be smooth sailing. But I feel I’m ready for anything thrown at me. I feel like I’m ready to help this team win.”

Used to attention

Brandon Cox, the reigning Mr. Football in Alabama, was the flavor of the month at Auburn three years ago. Never mind that the incumbent, Campbell, was the established starter and part of an eight-win team the previous year.

In the opener against Louisiana-Monroe, Campbell led the Tigers inside the 10-yard line early in the game. He was hit while throwing, and the ball was tipped and intercepted.

Some of the 80,663 booed Campbell. And the normally even-keeled quarterback was ticked.

“The backup quarterback is always the most popular guy on campus and I’ve always accepted that,” he says. “But I was winning games. When they booed, I was thinking, ‘How am I getting booed because of that?’ I was ticked off. I had done a lot for that program.”

Never booed during a sensational high school career in Mississippi and never booed at Auburn, Campbell quickly discovered all eyes are on the quarterback all the time. That has prepared him well for the NFL gantlet. If he throws three first-half interceptions at his home stadium, he may hear the jeers. This time around, he’ll be ready for it.

“Everybody has their own opinion,” he says. “The next thing I knew that night, those people were cheering. That’s the game and the position I play.”

Auburn eventually won the game 31-0. For Campbell, the right coordinator (Al Borges) who brought the right offense (two-backs, deep passing game) at the right time (Campbell’s senior year) produced the right ending (13-0 record).

A clandestine trip to Alabama by Redskins coach Joe Gibbs days before the April 2005 draft convinced him that trading away the next year’s first-round pick to select Campbell No. 25 overall was the right move.

What Gibbs saw was size (6-5, 233), arm strength (ability to make every throw), mobility (look for the Redskins to roll him out) and, most of all, character. In what could be the defining personnel move of his second stint with the Redskins, Gibbs is confident the right choice was made.

“Quarterbacks are different because they have to keep stepping up,” Gibbs says. “They have to have that great competitive spirit and make plays when it really counts. A team will follow a quarterback if he can make plays. I thought Jason handled himself well last year in the seven games he played.”

Great pocket presence

Styrofoam cup of coffee in his left hand, clicker in his right, Al Saunders is talking about 10 miles a minute. And the enthusiasm with which he talks about Campbell is obvious.

Two days after the Redskins’ preseason game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Saunders is standing in the offensive team meeting room shortly after 7 a.m. Saunders fires up the computer, turns on the big screen.

The situation: Third-and-12 from the Redskins 19. The personnel: Two backs, two receivers, one tight end. The opponent: The Steelers play a 3-4 alignment.

Viewing the play several times from the sideline and end zone angles, Saunders gives a crash-course on the play, a 14-yard completion to Chris Cooley. Campbell correctly recognizes the coverage, senses the rush coming and throws for the first down.

And got hit in the mouth.

“This is what kind of pocket presence and courage this kid has and this is what the fans don’t see,” Saunders says. “When the pressure comes, a lot of guys would get out of the pocket as fast as they can. He knows he’s going to hit, but he stays there. That’s a quality you can’t teach.”

The Campbell Redskins fans will see this year is different from the Campbell who threw 10 touchdown passes and six interceptions last season.

His release is quicker — watch for quick throws down the line of scrimmage to Santana Moss.

His footwork is crisper — a seven-step drop will be a seven-step drop, not a six-step drop that disrupts the timing of a play.

His decision-making is better — he doesn’t go for broke even though his first option is double covered.

“There were some technique things that we knew needed work, but when he went from third-string to starter he had to get on the field and do his best to deliver the ball,” quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor says. “[The spring] was the time of the year where we ironed out the little things.”

The Redskins hope those little things translate into big plays.

Since Gibbs’ return, the passing offense has ranked 29th (2004), 21st (2005) and 21st (2006) in the NFL. But with Campbell’s arm strength bringing back the threat of the deep ball, Moss one of the game’s best downfield receivers and tight Chris Cooley’s post-catch ability, the Redskins hope to climb up the rankings.

“I want to be smart with the football and understand better when to take a shot downfield and when not to,” Campbell says. “I can’t come out and try to throw every ball deep. I have to manage the game by checking it down and getting ourselves into second-and-short, third-and-short where we can run it for the first down.”

Campbell has the knowledge of Saunders’ vast offense, and he’s playing the game at a faster tempo. And he’s also taken charge of the huddle.

“You can watch him now and see his confidence and see his swagger and see his leadership ability,” running back Clinton Portis says. “He’s eager to prove he’s an elite quarterback and wants to step into that territory. If he’s successful, we’ll be successful.”

A return to form by Campbell won’t guarantee a turnaround season for the Redskins. But if he exceeds expectations, the Redskins as a whole will. That’s how important the position is and how tough it is to play.

“Things don’t happen overnight,” he says. “I know it’s going to take a lot of work. But I really believe we have the right group of guys playing for the right coaching staff. To me, it doesn’t matter how young or how old you are as the quarterback, it’s how you can lead the whole group.”

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