Thursday, September 10, 2009

Nearly all of his teammates had returned to the locker room following a recent training camp practice, but Jason Campbell continued to grind, spending 30 minutes throwing passes and wrapping up his work by running sprints up and down the field in solitude.

He walked off the field alone.

Playing NFL quarterback in general - and quarterback for the Washington Redskins in particular - can feel like a lonely position. But Campbell is hardly a solo act as he prepares for his third season opener Sunday against the New York Giants.

He has his teammates and position coach, who believe he’ll thrive by playing in the same offense for a second consecutive season. And most of all, he has the head coach in his corner.

The intriguing storyline for the Redskins this year is also the most important subplot: Coach Jim Zorn and Campbell are joined at the hip.

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“I definitely feel that, and it’s obvious for the most part because of everything that happened [this offseason],” Campbell said last week. “For us, we’re together. … Since I haven’t been offered a contract, it’s ‘this year and then we’ll see what happens.’ ”

If the Redskins do well, particularly on offense, Zorn and Campbell (whose contract expires after the season) will return in 2010 and erase the stench of a tumultuous offseason in which owner Dan Snyder twice tried to acquire a new quarterback.

Struggle and who knows what Snyder will do after surveying the wreckage? Jon Gruden and Colt McCoy, anyone?

The mighty efforts last spring by Snyder and front office chief Vinny Cerrato to acquire Jay Cutler and rookie Mark Sanchez failed, leaving Campbell 16 chances to prove to Snyder he’s worth a new contract. Zorn has the same sample size to prove he can kick-start an offense that has failed to crack the top 10 in scoring since 1999.

The Redskins think they can make it work, that they’re the team that started 6-2, not the team that limped home to an 8-8 finish. Veterans say enough of the constant start-overs - their belief in Zorn and Campbell is strong.

“I would hope that everybody stays because cohesiveness is huge in the NFL,” tight end Chris Cooley said. “Guys that are on the same page with everything are important. To make a change like that would make it tough on everyone. It doesn’t make it tough on just the coach and the quarterback. I would like to see us continue to build.”

QB, coach always linked

They had been in place as the New York Giants’ coach and quarterback for only one season, but when Bill Parcells and Phil Simms convened for training camp in 1984, they knew a repeat of the previous year’s 3-12-1 record wouldn’t be tolerated.

“We both said, ‘Hey, are we going to be here next year or not?’ ” Simms recalled.

Things worked out for the Parcells-Simms Giants. They reached the postseason five of the next seven years, and Simms was MVP of Super Bowl XXI.

But for every situation that worked, there are dozens more that failed.

In his new book, “More Than A Game,” former Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick wrote that from 1992 to 2001, 12 of 18 first-round quarterbacks were busts; none of the coaches of those 12 players had his job three years later.

Last year, Romeo Crennel (Cleveland), Lane Kiffin (Oakland), Jon Gruden (Tampa Bay), Herm Edwards (Kansas City) and Mike Nolan (San Francisco) were all fired in part because of shoddy quarterback play.

“The responsibilities are such with both positions, somebody has to take the fall, and the first guy is either the coach or the quarterback,” Redskins backup quarterback Todd Collins said. “If a coach stakes his reputation on a guy and it doesn’t work out, the owner says, ‘You made that decision. You’re gone, too.’ ”

Nine teams have new head coaches this year. Five of them - the Broncos, Chiefs, Lions, Buccaneers and Jets - acquired new quarterbacks for their coaches, creating an instant link.

Rare is the coach who survives missing with a first-round passer, like Tennessee’s Jeff Fisher, whose franchise drafted Vince Young in 2006.

“That’s the way it’s always been,” said Redskins offensive coordinator Sherman Smith, in his 24th year as player or coach. “Coaches figure the quarterback is the guy who will determine your success, so they’re locked at the hip.”

Zorn disputes the notion that he and Campbell’s fates are connected; he’s probably the only one who thinks that’s the case.

“The head coach is always involved with protecting or criticizing his own guy,” Zorn said. “It’s probably because how a quarterback does during a season really has a lot to do how the team is going to do. I don’t feel I have to link myself. I don’t feel like I’m a lousy coach if Jason throws an interception, and I don’t feel like I did it when he throws a touchdown pass either.”

Zorn confident, comfortable

Zorn can relate to the emotions Campbell felt as the Redskins tried to replace him. Zorn was Seattle’s starter from the team’s inception in 1976 through the halfway point of the 1983 season. For the final few years, Dave Krieg loomed as the backup/future starter.

“What I felt was, ‘Why in one day would you be talking to me like I’m awesome and then the next day, you’re telling me I can’t even throw the ball anymore?’ I didn’t lose that much ability in one day,” Zorn said.

The reality hit Zorn during practice when coaches would point out everything Krieg was doing correctly.

“It didn’t matter what I did - I would complete a pass and it was silence,” he said. “When Dave completed a pass, it was like, ‘Oh… my… gosh.’ You could feel that as a player. When you’re not being coached anymore, something’s wrong.”

With that experience as a guide, Zorn never stopped coaching Campbell and never stopped treating him as anything but the Redskins’ starting quarterback.

Few can relate to what Campbell experienced since last season ended, but Zorn can. That allowed him to deftly handle the spring full of chaos by speaking to Campbell privately and not listening to the outside noise.

“I kind of have rules for myself - I don’t read, listen or watch,” Zorn said. “I have other people read, and I only need to hear the really significant things, and it doesn’t have to do with the Redskins per se, but the league. I try to stay focused on what’s true and what I know inside and what we were trying to get done.”

Once training camp started and the Campbell situation was squashed, Zorn tried to get more things done by not trying to get everything done and creating a better rapport with veterans.

He let players with four or more years experience stay at their homes, throttled down the level of hitting during camp and was more open to listening and delegating.

“Last year being his first as a head coach, he felt like he had to control everything and it was all on him,” said Smith, his former teammate in Seattle. “He’s held still accountable for everything, but he’s not responsible for all of it. He’s grown into the position, no question.”

The coaching staff spent the start of last season learning the personnel and each other in addition to Zorn’s offense. This season, the coaches already are on the same page.

While the question of whether Snyder will pursue another mega-coach in January will hover over Redskin Park all season, the coaching staff is privately and publicly confident that Zorn is the right guy at the right time.

“We’ve made some great improvements,” offensive line coach Joe Bugel said. “[Zorn] is a great listener, and I think he’s a hell of a leader. He listens and confers with his assistants. It’s not like he says, ‘I know everything.’ He’s been super.”

Campbell: I need to be better

When the Redskins tried to ditch him, Campbell was disappointed. But he cemented his status as Mr. Even Keel by not lashing out publicly. He knew bluster would do him no good.

“This easily could have gotten blown out of control and proportion, and that definitely wouldn’t have been the good way to go because you don’t want to burn any bridges or have anything carrying into the season,” he said. “Had I said something or done something out of the ordinary, it would be something we’re still dealing with now instead of moving forward.”

Instead of taking the Cutler approach (whining), Campbell said all the right things, which means he basically said nothing.

But he admitted he was tested.

“There’s no denying it stung him,” Collins said. “You want to feel wanted and appreciated and have people share that sentiment.”

During his first bouts with adversity as the Redskins’ starter, Campbell could always relate to his days at Auburn, where he was booed off the field and was constantly learning new systems and establishing partnerships with new offensive coordinators.

But Auburn never tried to trade him to Kentucky or Mississippi State for two scholarships to be named later. The Redskins’ infatuation with Cutler and Sanchez was new territory.

When the rumors heated up, Campbell kept going to Redskin Park for weight-room sessions, meetings and on-field work.

Instead of blaming Snyder and Cerrato for trying to run him out of town, Campbell looked at himself to overcome the understandable bitterness.

“I said, ‘OK, I have to be accountable. I have to play better down the stretch. I need to do certain things better,’ ” he said. “But all that being said, it felt bad because I’m a competitor and I felt I was being thrown out. I watch a lot of games and I feel like I’m a very good quarterback in this league and some of my best days are ahead of me. … By no means am I looking for any sympathy. I just want to play, have fun and see what happens.”

Campbell’s best days came during the Redskins’ 6-2 start last year. In the first half of the season, he threw eight touchdown passes and no interceptions; in the second half, he had five touchdowns and six interceptions.

Because of injuries to the offensive line, Campbell was under pressure to get rid of the ball quickly. Because of the redshirt-type seasons from rookies Devin Thomas, Malcolm Kelly and Fred Davis, half of Campbell’s completions were to Cooley and Santana Moss.

But Campbell became the scapegoat months after the season. Ultimately, the Cutler deal fell through when Denver coach Josh McDaniels preferred Kyle Orton. A trade for Sanchez didn’t materialize because the Redskins didn’t have a second-round pick to deal.

“I went into some last years of contracts - everybody did back when I played but I never did go through what Jason went through,” Simms said. “There were always rumors, but nothing like this. I feel for him, I really do.”

When Campbell started the preseason 4-for-13, he again became talk-radio fodder. But Simms, who didn’t disagree with the Redskins’ pursuit of Cutler and Sanchez, liked the fact Campbell had to face adversity.

“In the preseason, you want every player at one time to really struggle because that’s what gives them focus,” Simms said. “When I played, things worked out great on Sundays when I had a really tough week because I learned from everything. If I made a mistake in practice, it was, ‘I won’t do that in the game.’ I like the quarterback to get roughed up a bit in the preseason, but I think he needs something positive to happen from the start.”

The schedule - the opener against the Giants excepted - sets Campbell and the Redskins up for a fast start. Another good first half, and contract speculation is bound to resurface. If the Redskins struggle early or limp home, Campbell and Zorn will both be under fire.

Campbell is trying to treat this year like others but knows his future is unsettled.

“I try not to make it feel different,” he said. “I know it’s my contract year. I know everything I do will be scrutinized and how if I throw an incompletion even I have to throw an incompletion, I’m a bad quarterback. All that said, I’m not putting pressure on myself. I’m going to play relaxed and try to make plays.”

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