Coming off a solid-but-forgettable debut against the Baltimore Ravens last week, Redskins starting QB Jason Campbell had an opportunity against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Saturday night to take the proverbial bull by the horns.
A good performance against the defending champions would have gone a long way toward quieting the growing undercurrent of concern among Redskins fans that Jason Campbell may not be The Man for The Job in 2009.
Going 1-for-7 for 10 yards, and engineering just three points, was probably not what he had in mind.
Since numbers alone rarely tell the whole story, however … I reviewed his plays again and tried to look a little deeper.
On the first play of the game, Campbell got good protection from his offensive line and went deep to a streaking Malcolm Kelly, who had gotten behind Steelers super-safety Troy Polamalu, on a deep post. Campbell’s pass was under thrown (as much as a tight spiral that travels 60 yards in the air can be) and off line, however, forcing Kelly to slow and adjust his route back toward the center of the field and allowing Polamalu to catch up and knock the pass away.
After the game, Campbell admitted being surprised by Kelly’s speed, a statement that initially raised my eyebrows. Given time to reflect, perhaps it should better serve as a reminder as to how little actual game time the two have working together.
"It was close,” said Kelly. “The crazy thing, though, is that me and Jason never practiced that route all week long. The first time we ran it was in the game. We'll get it done, though—we'll complete it next time."
Time will tell.
Former Redskins QB Joe Theismann, by the way, doing color commentary on Comcast, mentioned the wet ball as a possible factor. Anyone who has ever tried throwing deep with a wet football can understand the sentiment, but I suspect most fans would chalk that up to simple excuse-making. Whether it played a role or not, I’m glad Campbell didn’t go there.
Campbell’s second pass was supposed to be a screen to RB Clinton Portis in the right flat, but the Steelers diagnosed it and Campbell threw the ball away. Should he have tried to make a play anyway, maybe scramble and look downfield for a second option? Good chance Brett Favre would have. Jim Zorn, on the other hand, I have to believe would say no. Preseason. Rain. The Pittsburgh Steeler defense. The smart, veteran play in that situation was to throw it away.
The subsequent 3rd-and-10 play was a pass over the middle to an open Santana Moss that appeared to get away from Campbell and sailed high. A leaping Moss was unable to make the catch, and it was fourth down.
All in all, not the most auspicious beginning for Jason Campbell … but upon further perhaps not as dire as I suspect a whole lot of ramped up fans thought. Campbell has a history of starting out games too jacked up missing early passes, then settling down and getting going. The compressed time frame and sample size of a half-dozen passes per preseason "game" forces the issue, and leaves us with the temptation to project the raw numbers over an entire game.
Instead of punting the ball after the Moss incompletion, Jim Zorn authorized the fake punt, and RB Rock Cartwright rumbled for 15 yards for the first down. I don’t expect to see many gambles like that—fake punts on 3rd-and-10 from his own 35 two minutes into a game—in the regular season, but in this case, Zorn’s gamble worked and provided Campbell and the offense had new life.
Which became evident immediately.
1-10-PIT 45 (14:13) C.Portis up the middle for 2 yards.
2-8-PIT 43 (13:45) C.Portis left tackle for 3 yards
3-5-PIT 40 (13:06) (Shotgun) J.Campbell pass short right to 82-A.Randle El (PENALTY on WAS-60-C.Samuels, Illegal Formation, 5 yards - No Play.)
3-10-PIT 45 (12:38) (Shotgun) J.Campbell pass short middle to C.Cooley for 10 yards
1-10-PIT 35 (11:54) C.Portis left tackle for 2 yards
2-8-PIT 33 (11:16) J.Campbell scrambles up the middle to PIT 29 for 4 yards
3-4-PIT 29 (10:35) L.Betts left tackle to PIT 22 for 7 yards
1-10-PIT 22 (10:01) C.Portis left guard for 11 yards
1-10-PIT 11 (9:23) C.Portis right end for 8 yards
2-2-PIT 3 (9:14) L.Betts left tackle for 1 yard
3-1-PIT 2 (8:34) L.Betts left tackle -1 yards
4-2-PIT 3 (8:17) S.Suisham 20 yard field goal is GOOD
As reflected in the bolded plays, Jason Campbell had a good series. He stepped up and threw accurately and on rhythm, hitting Randle El on a crisp 3rd-and-6 conversion over the middle that was nullified by the Chris Samuels formation penalty.
On the subsequent 3rd-and-11, he slid up into the pocket to avoid pressure and drilled Chris Cooley for the first down.
Two plays later he pulled it down and scrambled—a quick, aggressive decision for positive yards. [The man really does need to learn to slide, though. To borrow a phrase once used to describe former Redskins QB Gus Frerotte’s running style, Jason Campbell slides like an octopus falling out of a tree.]
With the offensive line protecting well and opening lanes for the running game, Zorn found a play-calling rhythm on the drive, and the offense rolled down to the Pittsburgh three yard line. There, faced with 2nd-and-2, Zorn opted to take the ball out of Campbell’s hands, sending Betts off left tackle twice.
I would really like to have seen him let Campbell roll out and take a shot into the end zone on at least one of those plays—a TD pass there would have been a great confidence-builder—but for reasons I’m sure he thought more important at the time, Zorn went Ground Jim instead.
The first Betts run picked up a little more than a yard and left the Redskins 3rd-and-inches. The second attempt, disappointingly, was a fairly tentative, too-upright run on which Betts lost at least a yard.
Zorn, knowing his team needed to come away with its first points of the year, opted for the chip-shot field goal. I had no problem with the decision to take the points in that situation … if I have a question, it's with the decision to run straight up the gut into the teeth of the number one defense in football on 2nd and 3rd down.
But ... it’s preseason. Maybe Zorn was simply “evaluating” Ladell Betts. Given the results, Mr. Betts may want to hope not.
Regardless, the offensive series after the fake punt was easily the starting Redskins offense first moment of clarity in 2009. All the elements—playcalling, QB, line, receivers and RB’s—came together, giving both the team and its fans a taste of success and the welcome feeling that maybe things were indeed headed in the right direction.
Unfortunately, it didn’t carry over to the next possession.
Zorn started aggressively again, calling for another deep ball, this time up the left sideline to Santana Moss. The good news? The offensive line provided good protection and Moss had inside position and a lot of green in front of him. The bad news? Campbell’s pass, again, was short and off line, this time wrong-shouldering Moss. Maybe the wet ball thing wasn't so far off ... one thing we have rarely seen from Jason Campbell is a tentative deep ball.
On 2nd down, Betts was stopped again for no gain, and on 3rd-and-10 Campbell rolled right, didn’t see anything he liked and threw it away again.
And that was it. Todd Collins was in on the next Redskins possession.
The smart thing to do, of course, would be to yet again point out that it's preseason and nothing we've seen has any guaranteed bearing on what we will some come the regular season. But what fun would that be? We have a week to kill before the next "game" and chance to over-analyze, so let's get our money's worth.
One thing about Jason Campbell throughout his time in Washington, he’s been pretty deft on the long ball. If anything he’s been too long on occasion, rarely too short. I’m not all that concerned with the two missed deep shots. For one thing, he was able to take them behind good protection from his line. And on both occasions the receivers had separation. Maybe the wet ball was a factor, maybe not. Bottom line, for now I’m just filing the under-throws away as something to keep an eye on.
The two deep passes and miss over the middle to Moss were the three passes you’d like to have back. The throw to Randle El that was nullified by penalty, and the subsequent one to Cooley, were money. The two throwaways and the scramble I have no problem with.
There is no way to project what would have happened next in an actual game. How many times have we seen a quarterback start a game with bad numbers, say 1-for-7 for 10 yards, then go 7-for-8 for 100 yards and a score to head into halftime 8-for-15 for 110 yards and a TD?
Unfortunately for Campbell, until we actually see some extended success, his 2009 numbers have not been encouraging:
4-for-13, 48 yds., 0 TD, 0 INT
Completion percentage: 30.8%
QB rating: 43.1
Possessions: 6 (including 3-and-out prior to fake punt)
First Downs: 6
Points scored: 3
That kind of production is not going to get it done, and Jason Campbell knows it as well as anyone. There have been some extenuating circumstances (play-calling, routes by receivers, penalties, weather, etc.) that should buy him at least some continued benefit of the doubt, but the fact remains the production has been lacking.
Moreover, what I had most hoped to see from Jason—indication that the game has finally slowed down for him, rather than the speed of the game dictating to him—has yet to materialize. Much as I want to believe in his development into a playoff-level quarterback, I haven’t seen him take that step yet. While clearly a subjective read, to me he still appears too often a beat slow reading the coverage and getting the ball out.
And next week against the NE Patriots, the road to that necessary destination won't get any easier. Bill Belichick defenses are not traditionally not the best to get untracked against, preseason or not.
One thing is for sure … another statistically poor performance, without at least a little magic (that elusive touchdown pass would go a long way), and it won't be hard to believe that the creeping doubt among many fans will also begin to permeate in the locker room.
So far through two preseason games, Jason Campbell has not looked like the more confident, quicker, decisive and accurate passer we’ve heard about in camp. Instead he's looked at various times unsettled, unsure and inaccurate.
Here’s hoping what has come across from the stands and on TV looks a lot worse than it really is, and that Jason’s lack of production has been due as much to the nature of preseason, the plays he’s been asked to run and various outside factors … and not the water-treading at best, and regression at worst, that it appears to be.
NEXT UP: Greg Blache & the Defense