Campbell ready to move past rocky offseason

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ASHBURN, Va. – The offseason still casts a long shadow, but Jason Campbell(notes) clings to what he believed 12 months ago: that the Washington Redskins are his team, that he’s capable of being an upper-tier NFL quarterback, and that realizing the latter will assure his place in the hearts of fans and front office doubters.

But he allows that there are some prevailing issues of trust. Campbell began Washington’s training camp Thursday acutely aware of the awkwardness accompanying a starting quarterback in the last year of his contract. He knows the franchise’s two biggest offseason flirtations with improving his unit weren’t about adding to the pieces around him, but instead were aimed at unseating him altogether. He chuckles uncomfortably about the Jay Cutler(notes) trade drama, the Mark Sanchez(notes) draft dilemma and the ongoing contract saga. He finally moved past those three things earlier this month, just before rumors swirled about a connection to Michael Vick(notes).

Photo It was indeed an exhausting offseason for Campbell.
(Win McNamee/Getty)

“It was a wakeup call,” Campbell said of the offseason. “My eyes were definitely opened. Something like all of that tells you a lot about the NFL. You try not to think about it at all, but there are nights where you sit at home by yourself, with nobody around, and you start to think about certain things. There are certain things that go through your head. Really, this might be the toughest part of my career ever, since I’ve been playing football. This is as tough as it can get.”

What Campbell learned is he is only as good as how he ends the previous season, which in his case was less than stellar in 2008. A 6-2 start and an 8-0 touchdown-to- interception ratio gave way to a 2-6 second half of the season – a span in which Campbell threw more picks (six) than touchdown passes (five). In the larger picture, the tumble out of the playoff picture wasn’t entirely Campbell’s fault. Indeed, considering the schedule, the Redskins were never as good as the fast start indicated. And while Campbell had trouble moving the offense down the stretch, almost every part of the offense stalled. The offensive line was mired in injuries and inconsistency, the young wideouts drafted to play opposite Santana Moss(notes) weren’t producing, and running back Clinton Portis(notes) had dropped off significantly, from averaging five yards per carry in games 1-8 to only 3.5 in games 9-16.

As quarterbacks typically do, Campbell became a focal point of blame during the decline. But it wasn’t until the offseason exploration into other quarterbacks that the franchise appeared to be identifying Campbell as the problem. Whether the Redskins intended to send that message, that’s what came across when they devoted more than $63 million in guaranteed money to a pair of defensive signings (defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth(notes) and cornerback DeAngelo Hall(notes)) and then showed more interest in Cutler and Sanchez than in working out a contract extension for Campbell.

In fairness to the Redskins, their diligence wasn’t exactly egregious. The pursuit of a better quarterback is practically a biblical tenet in the NFL. And in truth, far better résumés than Campbell’s have been put on the trade block in the past (see: John Elway and the Redskins in 1991). But it did come at a price, particularly for Campbell. One that he admitted Thursday, when after trying to move beyond the last six turbulent months, he walked out to the practice field and immediately noticed fans wearing No. 7 jerseys and holding up a “DC WANTS VICK” sign.

“I was like, ‘What in the world?’ ” Campbell said, shaking his head. “I just started laughing. I do feel a little snake-bitten. Some fans, I guess they forgot about the good things. The first eight games [in 2008], I’m still that same quarterback.”

The Vick situation definitely doesn’t appear to sit well with Campbell, either. He declined to go into detail, but clucked his tongue and added that he “heard all” the rumors and speculation about Washington’s interest in the former Atlanta Falcons quarterback. How much it has gotten under his skin remains to be seen, but two Redskins players told Yahoo! Sports Thursday that Campbell has said privately he believes the organization spoke to Vick at some point. Redskins general manager Vinny Cerrato and the agent that Vick and Campbell share, Joel Segal, categorically denied that on Thursday.

Interestingly, Campbell’s poise through most of the offseason became a rallying point for some of his teammates, particularly as he became more assertive when it came to pushing his wideouts to take part in all of the offseason workouts. Moss talked Thursday about seeing a renewed mental strength in Campbell as the offseason came to a close, while younger players Devin Thomas(notes) and Malcolm Kelly(notes) said they felt a clear expectation coming from Campbell regarding their work ethic.

“There is no questioning it, he’s mentally stronger than a lot of guys,” Hall said. “Jason is so nonchalant about things. Had it been me going though that trade stuff, I probably would have responded a little differently. In fact, in the past I have responded differently to trade talks and things like that. For him to keep his calm and keep his cool says something.”

Photo The fans, at least a few, have made their point.
(Win McNamee/Getty)

“Nobody on this team was very happy with the way that situation was handled,” added tight end Chris Cooley(notes). “I was proud of him when they were talking about Mark Sanchez, and Jason stood up and said, ‘You bring him in and I’m not going to be your quarterback. I’m not going to stay here.’ Then he moved on with it, which was the best thing.”

And while playing in the last year of his deal leaves a looming question mark, Campbell said he thinks the Redskins may have put him into the ultimate bargaining position. Should he blossom this season, he’ll have the opportunity to be a coveted commodity in the NFL – a young, big, strong-armed quarterback with room to grow.

But making that leap is going to mean working out some of the lower body flaws the team found over the course of last season. Head coach Jim Zorn and offensive assistant Chris Meidt have worked extensively on Campbell’s stature after the snap, in hopes quicker drops can translate into faster decisions and help maximize his decision-making and minimize a slight windup in his delivery.

“First, his footwork is so much better now than it was a year ago,” Meidt said. “You can’t even compare it. That’s really all we spent last season on – below the waist. His footwork, explosiveness in his drops, rhythm in his drops, getting his depth, the play-action game, all of it is better. Second, his decision-making is better.”

Projecting the season forward, Meidt said he thinks Campbell is on the verge of blossoming. That in 12 months forward, everything from this past offseason will be nothing more than a footnote – a fortunate turn for both the Redskins and Campbell.

“Obviously, we can’t get him hit as much,” Meidt said. “Our receiving corps, we have to get it where teams can’t roll to Santana all day. … But Jason has great gifts. Anyone watching can see it. He can make all the throws. He’s athletic, he’s strong, he’s almost 6-6 and 230. He has all those pieces. Now it’s just about putting it together.”

Charles Robinson is the senior investigative reporter for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Charles a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Jul 31, 2009