Raiders turn to Campbell for rescuing

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NAPA, Calif. – Oakland Raiders starting quarterback Jason Campbell(notes) relaxes in a cushioned chair in the lobby of the Napa Valley Marriott. For all the trappings of comfort in this serene, elegant corner of the world, Campbell has come here looking for redemption.

The Raiders – they're just looking for some normalcy at his position.

"I just want to get to a point where I enjoy it again and I'm having fun again because I've gone through so much that, at times, it was stressful, always having to go through these different loops and everything," said Campbell, whose experience over the first five years of his career was loopy indeed. "I want to enjoy it and not just keep getting questioned so much, trying to keep your head up and going straight forward through all the changes. … It almost feels like I've been drafted all over again."

After being selected as the Redskins' first-round pick in 2005, Campbell played under four different play-callers. That started with the brilliant Joe Gibbs(notes) and progressively devolved to Al Saunders, Jim Zorn and then Sherm Lewis. Lewis had been out of football for five years when he took over the offense as Zorn was professionally neutered by Redskins owner Dan Snyder.

Throw in four offensive coordinators in four years at Auburn and Campbell is playing for his ninth offensive coordinator or play-caller in the 10 years since he left high school. Or, as Campbell said with a touch of sarcasm, he speaks nine offensive languages. If only there was a version of the United Nations for football, Campbell could be an interpreter.

"If I ever become an offensive coordinator, I can borrow from nine playbooks," Campbell said.

Of course, if former Oakland quarterback and 2007 No. 1 overall pick JaMarcus Russell(notes) had cracked the one playbook he was given a little more, perhaps Campbell wouldn't be here and the Raiders might not have been so desperate for a change – anything to distance themselves from Russell's place in NFL history as the league's most gargantuan draft bust.

The stench of Russell's carcass of a career is so strong that Campbell's mediocre results over the past four years have been welcomed with emotional rose petals lining his path. Before training camp even started, Campbell was named the starter by head coach Tom Cable. Teammates consistently talk about Campbell's professionalism as if it's a thing of wonder.

"I've been around championship-caliber football and I like what I see," said defensive lineman Richard Seymour(notes), he of three Super Bowl rings with the Patriots before getting traded to Oakland on the eve of the 2009 season. "There's no question we have a guy at quarterback now who knows how to handle himself, how to carry himself."

"He's a natural leader," said wide receiver Chaz Schilens(notes). "He doesn't have to say much, but he knows when he has to open his mouth."

Second-year receiver Louis Murphy(notes) compared Campbell's self-assuredness to former Florida Gators teammate and Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow(notes). While that may seem awkward, given the fact that Tebow has yet to play a down in the NFL, Tebow is nothing if not focused on football.

"I see a lot of similarities between Jason Campbell and Tim Tebow," Murphy said. "They're both really driven."

Sadly, Campbell's career course has been navigated as if Lindsay Lohan was his chauffer. The constant coaching changes have left lingering questions about whether his talent is middling or whether it simply has never been nurtured.

Over the past four years, Campbell has compiled a quarterback rating of 82.3 while completing 61.2 percent of his passes. He also has a decent touchdown passes-to-interceptions comparison: 55-38.

But when you factor in the lack of consistency around him, there would seem to be promise. Consider that Colts quarterback Peyton Manning(notes) has spent his entire 12-year career in the same offense, surrounded by a consistent group of skill players. Campbell is no Manning, but neither has he been given a chance to see how close he could come.

"I wonder what it would feel like to be in the same system for three years," Campbell said. "Not just me but the guys that play with me because not only do I have to change, but they have to change. I've never gotten to the point that if you're a receiver of mine and you've run a route so many times, you get to seeing it the same way, so that when you see a certain coverage you can change the route up a little bit but you know how to get in the same area. You can adjust."

It's a seemingly simple thing but it requires time. Sadly, Campbell has come to a place where there isn't much of that. The Raiders go through coaches as if there was a giant fly zapper outside their facility. If Cable – who enters his second full season after taking over for Lane Kiffin in 2008 – can make it through the fifth game of the campaign, he will have coached more games than his four predecessors (Kiffin, Art Shell, Norv Tuner and Bill Callahan).

The trend runs even deeper. Of the past eight Raiders head coaches before Cable, only two (Shell, in his first stint from 1989 to 1994, and Jon Gruden) have lasted longer than 32 games.

The reason is obvious. Owner Al Davis, now 81, is up against time because of worsening health. Davis has told numerous people over the past few years he simply doesn't have time to wait to develop a championship team over the long term. As a result, he has spent lavishly in free agency on quick fixes which turned out to be wasted money. Players such as DeAngelo Hall(notes), Javon Walker(notes) and Tommy Kelly(notes) all made fortunes on Davis.

Davis likewise viewed Russell as the second coming of Jim Plunkett, who quarterbacked the Raiders to their last two titles – in the 1980s. Sadly, Russell had zero passion for the game and seemingly less direction. The mix of Russell in a place where Davis overturns fines and other discipline handed down by the coaches was as deadly as combining ammonia and bleach.

The Raiders released Russell (left) shortly after acquiring Campbell during this year's NFL draft.
(Ben Margot/AP Photo)

It's all part of a run of seven straight years with at least 11 losses. This year, with division rivals such as the Broncos and Chiefs also rebuilding and the Chargers in flux because of likely holdouts by key players, the AFC West title may actually be in reach for the Raiders.

Grudgingly, Davis had to give up on Russell this offseason and go with Campbell, whom the Redskins also tried to trade before the 2009 draft. Campbell was offered to Denver as part of a package for Jay Cutler(notes). The Broncos opted instead for a deal with the Bears which included Kyle Orton(notes).

That said, perhaps this is the time when it all comes together for Campbell. Moreover, as the son of a coach, Campbell has a certain presence that has earned him a level of respect. It may not quite be the powerful personality of Rich Gannon in 2002, when the veteran quarterback led the Raiders to their last Super Bowl appearance, but it has generated respect from some notable corners of the league.

A little less than a year ago, when Washington was getting ready for an exhibition against New England, Campbell spotted fellow quarterback Tom Brady(notes) on the field.

"We started talking, and he told me how much he respected me for how I handled things," Campbell said, with Brady referring to all the slings of disrespect the Redskins had thrown him when they tried to trade for Cutler and considered drafting Mark Sanchez(notes).

As Campbell recounts it, there is a sense of dignity that comes over him. It has been a difficult journey to Oakland and there is still a long way to go. At least, however, there's an opportunity.

"Yeah, this is a rebuilding project for me and the team," Campbell said earnestly. "This is a chance to be part of something really special."