Monday, March 19, 2007

He chatted about celebrity with Tom Cruise during a swank Super Bowl party at the Versace Mansion in Florida.

He gained perspective about being the Washington Redskins’ quarterback with Doug Williams while also visiting Miami in early February.

He talked about acting as the face of a franchise with Gilbert Arenas after walking the red carpet at Arenas’ birthday party/example of excess.

And he discussed shouldering pressure of a rebuilding team with Alex Ovechkin following his first hockey game.

Each time, Jason Campbell got around to the same question.

“I asked all of them what it took for them to become a success,” he said last week during an interview at Redskin Park.

What he found out is something he kind of knew already: Winning with the Redskins will be different than winning at Taylorsville (Miss.) High School and at Auburn University. “When you’re winning in this town, I think things can be pretty awesome,” Campbell said.

Campbell’s journey to experiencing awesome things with the Redskins began against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 11 of last season, but in reality it kicks into high gear today at Redskin Park when the team’s offseason program begins. It will lead into the organized team activities later this spring, minicamp in mid-June and training camp come late July.

It is during the next few months Campbell and his two primary coaches — play caller Al Saunders and quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor — will dissect his seven starts and work on every minute fundamental.

This — cramming with his tutors in the meeting room, throwing to his receivers on the field — is what really excites Campbell.

It’s why he was one of the few players at the facility last week, working in the weight room to strengthen his upper and lower body. It’s why he has popped into the offices of Saunders and Lazor throughout the winter, just to bounce around ideas. And it’s why he will sacrifice vacation time in July to work with his teammates under the searing sun.

“I’m definitely looking forward to getting started again — what I’ll do the next few months is how I’ll get better,” Campbell said.

And even though he begins work as a starter following a 2-5 debut to end last season and even though he has attended glitzy events and met high-profile people, the Redskins don’t expect Campbell to alter his work ethic.

“Knowing Jason and the caliber of person he is and the fact he’s had to deal with attention and success at other levels, he’ll continue to be the same,” Lazor said. “I think he’ll approach every week of preparation just as he did his first start, with a heightened amount of excitement and the desire to put everything he has into every game.”

Used to spotlight

Had Campbell played collegiately at a Pacific 10 or Big East school in a major media market, he probably wouldn’t be as prepared to be an NFL starter in a big city. But in Alabama — like Texas — there are generally three sports seasons: Football, recruiting and spring football.

“This town is football-oriented, just like the state of Alabama was because there isn’t an NFL team or an NBA team,” Campbell said. “It felt like I was always in the spotlight, and that’s prepared me for D.C. But this is the kind of town I want to be in. I want people to be excited about my team and the position I play and what I bring to the team. But at the same time, I can’t let that distract me. I need to keep a level head.”

That shouldn’t be a problem. In the seven weeks he started, Campbell showed on-field fire that translated into winning the respect of the offensive veterans, and off the field he displayed an acute ability to be diplomatic after a defeat yet honest and, therefore, informative.

Because of the magnitude of the position and because the team’s season was in the sewer (3-6) at the time of the change, Campbell returned to the spotlight with the intensity of a dozen klieg lights. Viewed from the outside, it appeared to be a chaotic situation, with the coaches trying to make a third-string quarterback the starter in a span of three practice days.

Inside the walls, though, there was a sense of urgency but also an underlying reality that this day — Campbell replacing Mark Brunell or whomever — was going to come eventually.

“I don’t think it was as much of a circus atmosphere because when you draft a quarterback in the first round you know he’ll play at some point,” Lazor said. “My job was to prepare each guy in my meeting room, and part of that constant preparation was getting Jason ready to play. That’s why he stayed after to practice making the throws in the game plan. We knew it would come up at some point. I hope it wasn’t an all-of-a-sudden-type thing.”

Once Campbell became the starter, he showed he had prepared impressively behind the scenes, even while watching games and practices like the average fan who paid $35 to park and $109 for a sub-par, lower-level seat. Thrown into the breach, Campbell made some sensational plays — several two-minute drills that resulted in touchdowns and the game-winning throw to Chris Cooley against Carolina — and some rookie-type mistakes, such as careless interceptions.

Campbell completed 53.1 percent of his passes for 1,297 yards, 10 touchdowns and six interceptions. His wins came over the Panthers and at New Orleans.

“If you compare Jason to the other [first-year starters], he was pretty solid,” coach Joe Gibbs said. “Are there things he does really well? Yeah. Are there things he needs to work on? Yeah. He’s a young guy who we hope keeps stepping up. Having played as much as he did, he feels pretty good about what he learned against playing some of the better defenses in the league.”

The important parties believe the biggest benefit for Campbell this spring is when he plays a DVD, he will be watching No. 17 on the screen, not No. 8. He no longer has to play the hypothetical game, answering questions from Lazor about what he would have done on a Brunell completion or how differently (or similarly) he would have handled the blitz Brunell faced.

What become instantly clear is that Campbell will take more chances than Brunell. In two fewer starts, Campbell threw two more interceptions but two more touchdowns. Chances are, Brunell would not have tried to thread the needle to Cooley against Carolina that resulted in a touchdown.

“Everybody plays their game differently,” Campbell said. “Some guys take more chances than others. I won’t ever be afraid to take shots.”

The game plan

Sitting in a vacant conference room at the Indianapolis Marriott last month, Saunders was in his usual talkative mood because of the subject matter (quarterback play). He could see weekly improvements in Campbell’s performance, even if some were more subtle than others.

“He progressed every week — emotionally, physically, mentally,” Saunders said. “When we start, it’s going to be about only Jason. We’ll take every phase of our offense, every snap he played, and we’ll talk about the areas he needs to develop.”

Saunders wants Campbell more compact to quicken his delivery. The other focus points are less subtle, including how he moves his hands while calling for a presnap shift.

Although they are 35 years apart in age, Saunders and Campbell share a similar passion (the passing offense) and goals (scoring touchdowns and winning games). It has become clear Saunders thoroughly enjoys the prospect of molding a young passer; it also has become clear Campbell is going to hang on all of Saunders’ words.

“Jason is a very willing learner,” Saunders said. “He is a gifted athlete, and the quarterback position is a complex spot. It’s more than just throwing the football, and he knows that. There’s a lot of strategy involved, and there’s a lot to do in understanding an entire system.”

Said Campbell: “He’s on top of everything. He knows football inside and out. I truly have a lot of confidence in him, and I listen because he’s been to the top and I’m trying to get there.”

The bonus for Campbell is that for the first time in seven years, he will not start the offseason by getting to know a new coordinator and cramming to learn a new playbook. Saunders’ system — along with the usual tweaks — will remain intact, which is an immeasurable benefit for all parties.

Last year, much of the first month was spent inside a meeting room learning Saunders’ vast passing system. This year, Campbell again will spend hours studying with Saunders and Lazor to get a better grasp. But he will be on the field throwing as early as today and usually two days a week.

“I’m already ahead of the game,” Campbell said. “I still have a lot to learn because Coach Al has so many plays that, if I run them right, they can be so successful. I want to help him fulfill his vision for this offense.”

Campbell’s offseason work weeks will be four days long and essentially divided into three sections: classroom, weight room and on-field work. For the first month, that on-field work will include only him, Lazor, a center and someone standing at a spot on the field. Starting next month, Campbell will be joined on the field by the team’s skill players.

By early July, he wants to improve his chemistry with some players and establish it with two players — Santana Moss and Clinton Portis — who were limited (Moss) or didn’t play at all (Portis) with Campbell.

Along with Cooley, Antwaan Randle El, Brandon Lloyd, David Patten, James Thrash and Ladell Betts, Campbell intends to start throwing sessions next month.

“We’ll make the effort to work together, and because the summer is so long we’ll find ways to get together,” Campbell said. “And after minicamp, me and Randle El have already talked about taking just one week off [in July] and then getting together once or twice a week so we won’t lose our edge.”

Though the Redskins have other offseason concerns with a defense that still has questions and a left guard situation that remains semi-muddled even with Todd Wade’s return, the team will be watching Campbell closely. He doesn’t mind the attention and is determined to prove that he — and not San Francisco’s Alex Smith or Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers — was the best first-round quarterback from the 2005 draft.

“As everybody knows, he’ll have a lot to say about how well we’ll do, so we’re certainly hoping he’ll get better,” Gibbs said. “He’s the right kind of guy for this team, and he has a real desire to do this.”

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