For an hour after Washington's first training-camp practice of the season, Jason Campbell was the mayor of Redskins Park. Last Thursday in suburban Ashburn, Va., he signed autographs, gave optimistic interviews and flashed a prom-night smile for photos with corporate sponsors. When he saw a lone remaining teenage girl politely pleading for him to sign a shirt, Campbell walked back to her and obliged. "Part of the job," he said with a smile. ¬∂ There's a game after the game in the NFL—former quarterback Bernie Kosar used to call it the fifth quarter—in which the starting QB is supposed to send an upbeat signal to the press and the public. Watching Campbell work the crowd at Redskins Park, you'd think he'd majored in Fifth Quarter at Auburn.
Despite appearances, though, Campbell might be under the harshest spotlight of any NFL player as training camps open across the country. In the off-season the Skins pursued Jay Cutler and showed interest in Mark Sanchez, and as the fifth-year quarterback walked onto the practice field the name of yet another available quarterback popped up. At least two fans were wearing Falcons number 7 jerseys, and behind a fence near the practice field a DC WANTS VICK sign waved in the crowd.
"It's, well, tough sometimes," Campbell said on the sideline after practice. "I am fine now, but there were a couple of times in the off-season I felt like a piece of tissue they were flushing down the toilet."
While Michael Vick's pursuit of redemption and Brett Favre's retirement angst have dominated the headlines, other developing stories will shape the coming season—from Terrell Owens's arrival in Buffalo to Seattle's quest to rebuild its wideout corps and rediscover its playoff form. Thirty-two teams, each with numerous story lines in a league in which hope springs eternal in August.
Every day as they pass through the lobby of the team's training complex, Redskins players see the team's three Lombardi trophies and know they haven't come close to a fourth. Since the Skins won their last Super Bowl, 18 years ago, they are 29 games below .500 and have cycled through seven coaches and seemingly 700 quarterbacks. Owner Dan Snyder has seen his team win all of two wild-card games in 10 free-spending years running the show.
Even after Snyder broke the bank last February with a $100 million contract for free-agent defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, the focus in D.C. is squarely on Campbell, 27, who's in his second full season as the starter and the last year of his five-year rookie deal. In 2008 he led Washington to a 6--2 start, but as defenses turned up the pressure on the injury-ravaged Skins in the second half of the season, Washington went 2--6, scoring a measly 100 points. The impatient Snyder went hard after Cutler and would have had him had the Broncos preferred Campbell to Bears quarterback Kyle Orton. Then shortly before the draft Snyder and Redskins vice president Vinny Cerrato wined and dined USC's Sanchez for three hours. Although they decided not to swing a megatrade to draft Sanchez, the message was clear: Washington was in the market for a new quarterback.
Personable and hardworking, Campbell is as well-respected in his locker room as any quarterback in the league except maybe Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. "There's such great admiration for him around the team," says tight end Chris Cooley. "Nobody in this building doesn't want Jason to play great this year, go 8--2 in his first 10 games and force Dan to give him a huge contract." Says Snyder, "I do too! I want a franchise quarterback. I'd love for Jason to be that guy."
The knock on Campbell has been his conservative decision-making; he knows he's going to have to be bolder. "I don't like how few chances he takes in a business where quarterbacks have to take a few," says an opposing coach.
As a young player growing up in Laurel, Miss., Campbell admired two quarterbacks from his state: Steve McNair and Brett Favre. Their first full seasons as starting quarterbacks in the NFL were surprisingly similar. Campbell's completion percentage was better (62.3% to Favre's 60.9% in '93 and McNair's 52.0% in '97), as was his touchdown-to-interception differential (+7 to Favre's -5 and McNair's +1). Campbell and McNair both went 8--8; Favre was 9--7. Campbell, though, was sacked more times: 38, to Favre's 30 and McNair's 31. No NFC quarterback was taken down more frequently in '08 than Campbell.
To illustrate the trials Campbell went through, especially late in the season when his offensive line was beaten to a pulp, Zorn showed his team a series of time-lapse photos of Campbell and the Ravens' Joe Flacco dropping in the pocket and setting up to throw. The images showed the rookie Flacco with at least three yards of space in all directions as he released; Campbell looked as if he was trying to throw in a phone booth.
"Late in the year I could not call a slow-developing play downfield because I knew we couldn't protect Jason," Zorn says. "That makes it pretty tough on a quarterback. But what happened in the off-season are things you sometime can't expect. Who knew Jay Cutler would be available? Because Jason hasn't grown into the ultimate franchise quarterback yet, we pursued [Cutler]—and we weren't the only ones."
Campbell hasn't forgotten the Redskins' QB courtships. "Obviously I felt betrayed a little bit," he says. "But you've got to move on. My goal right now is to work with the guys around me, keep an even keel and not think about anything other than the next play."
It might work. This is the first time since high school that Campbell has started a second straight season with the same offensive system and the same coaches. "Football's a reaction game, and it's great not to have to think so much when you're setting up," he says. But his fate will be tied to the health of two warhorse linemen—tackle Chris Samuels (32) and guard Randy Thomas (33)—who are coming off debilitating triceps and neck injuries, respectively. If they go down, so will Campbell. And maybe a few others in the organization. "There's a lot at stake for everyone," Zorn says with a rueful smile. He knows there's never been such a corps of proven coaches on the street as there is now: Bill Cowher, Tony Dungy, Jon Gruden, Mike Holmgren, Mike Shanahan. In the NFL this preseason, the hope—and the heat—is everywhere.
Photographs by SIMON BRUTY
WHO'S THE MAN? Campbell was hurt that Zorn (left) and the Skins pursued a new quarterback (or two) but says he's put it behind him.
ROD MAR (BURLESON)
HAWK TALK Houshmandzadeh (above) was Seattle's big free-agent pickup, but Burleson might be the key to the passing game.
ROD MAR (HOUSHMANDZADEH)
[See caption above]