LANDOVER, Md. – This is the kind of game so many quarterback prodigies never understand.
The type of game where the defense is daring a young passer to beat them, lining up in eight-man fronts to stop the run and basically saying, "Go ahead kid, take your best shot." At some point, the youngster has to screw up.
On Sunday, Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell never did what most coaches would have expected. He didn't use his cannon arm to force a throw. He didn't use his intriguing combination of size (6-foot-5, 230 pounds) and good speed to buy more time for a big play that never came.
Rather, Campbell played a coaches' game. He played smart. He played easy. He played efficient. Bottom line: he played one of the better games you won't see on the highlight reels, going 23 of 29 for 248 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions during a 34-3 victory over the Detroit Lions.
While much of the football world will be caught up in the numbers the Washington defense reduced Detroit and quarterback Jon Kitna to at FedEx Field, the more intriguingly subplot revolved around Campbell.
Here was a 25-year-old making only his 11th start – Campbell has still been inactive in more games for his career than he has actually played – in a intriguing matchup of teams off to good starts. More important, here was Campbell playing with a receiving corps that didn't have deep threat Santana Moss at all and lost next-best receiver Antwaan Randle El in the first half.
The results were a game that Campbell and offensive coordinator Al Saunders have been working to perfect since Saunders got here in 2006.
"That's the Al Saunders offense exactly the way he wants to run it," Campbell said. "Yeah, the defense was challenging me and I had to react to that. I had to make plays. But at the same time, I didn't have to make really hard plays. I just had to play within myself."
Not that it was all that hard. Detroit's pass defense doesn't exactly have much in the way of teeth right now. The Lions defense knocked down only one pass all game and never sacked Campbell. If fact, he was pressured only twice.
Still, it's pretty remarkable for a Redskins team that was counting on a wide receiver who wasn't even employed a week ago at this time (Keenan McCardell had two catches for 39 yards). Beyond that, the offensive line has already lost two starters to injury since the beginning of the season and brought in a third new starter (left guard Pete Kendall) late in training camp.
In essence, so much of what the Redskins did relied on Campbell.
"He's very patient and very bright," said Kendall, the 34-year-old linemen the Redskins picked up from the Jets and who has seen his share of quarterbacks. Among those passers is Jets starter Chad Pennington, considered one of the brightest minds in the game. "The Lions weren't going to let us run the ball. We saw an extra guy in the box on just about every play. That meant Jason was going to have to make good decisions."
So how many times did Campbell change plays at the line?
"Well, I'm not going to get into our strategy, but I will say he managed the game very well," Kendall said.
Coach Joe Gibbs, another man with an appreciation for the cerebral explained, "He made smart decisions all day long. He took what was there and didn't try to force things … Every time he takes a step up, I think it's huge for the Redskins. You have a young guy there that is starting to work his way up.
"I felt like it was probably his best effort since he has been starting with us."
Again, not that Detroit put up the smartest fight. Sometimes the Lions were mystifyingly stupid, such as when Washington went for it on fourth-and-2 from the Detroit 38-yard line with 2:45 remaining in the first half. The Redskins were up 7-0 at the time. Even though the Washington defense was hounding Kitna and rattling the Lions receivers, the game was a long way from in control.
But on the play, Randle El lined up way wide to the left. The Lions not only left cornerback Stanley Wilson with no help, Wilson made it worse by playing an outside technique. That gave Randle El a free run on a quick slant.
Campbell hit the pass quickly and Randle El, who had seven catches for 100 yards before leaving after this play because of a hamstring strain, did the rest. He split the defense and took it all the way to the 1-yard line. The Redskins scored a play later to make it 14-0.
Similarly, Detroit was caught flat-footed on Campbell's first touchdown, a 7-yard pass to tight end Chris Cooley. That wouldn't be so shameful except that the play, which is simply called "F Pressure" was something the Redskins run all the time.
"I think I have like 10 touchdowns on that play," Cooley said. "All I do is run to the end zone and turnaround."
Not exactly the kind of genius that should have surprised the Lions, who fell to 3-2 and have been outscored 90-24 in two losses against NFC East foes.
But while that may not have been so stunning, Campbell showed some understated brilliance on the play that put the game away.
Up 16-3 at the time, Washington combined a punt return by James Thrash and subsequent fumble and recovery to end up with a first-and-goal at the Detroit 3-yard line. After a five-yard penalty, Saunders called for a rollout right with Campbell looking at the end zone first while having fullback Mike Sellers running underneath, just short of the goal line.
Campbell rolled and rolled, never finding anyone in the end zone as the 6-foot-3, 284-pound Sellers was quickly running out of room as he neared the sideline. Sellers, who is built along the lines of Fred Flintstone, pulled a nimble move.
Sellers improvised, doing a quick pirouette, went back to the left into open space.
"I was just trying to make a play, I just did it on my own," Sellers said.
Campbell was right in step, as if the two were on the cast of "Who's line is it anyway?" He hit Sellers in stride. With a two-point conversion, the Redskins were in control at 24-3.
While it may not have been how the coaches drew it up, it was nonetheless the picture of perfection.