FNQB: Has Jason Campbell Regressed or Have His Teammates Regressed?
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Tonight, LiveBall Sports is investigating a curious case of a quarterback becoming progressively less effective from his mid to late 20’s. In October of 2008, Jason Campbell and the Redskins won 6 of their first 8 games, and sat just a game behind the first place Giants in the NFC East. It was prior to the ninth game of the season that ESPN Monday Night Football Color Analyst Ron Jaworski called Campbell the NFL’s MVP in the first half of the season. My initial take on Jaworski’s take was that Campbell had played at an MVP level, but that Jaworski was underestimating the amount of help he was receiving from players like Chris Samuels, Pete Kendall, Clinton Portis, Mike Sellers, Santana Moss, Chris Cooley, and Antwaan Randle El.
The 2008 Redskins had four pro-bowlers from the offensive side, which did not include Campbell. The 2009 Redskins, of course, won four games, had no pro-bowlers on the offensive side, and Campbell spent a year being the best player on a very, very bad offensive football team. In 2010, Campbell was traded to the Raiders, where he has struggled to clearly establish himself as the best option in a stable of passers that includes Bruce Gradkowski and Kyle Boller (spoiler: he’s the best option). Campbell has gone 1-2 as a starter in Oakland, which doesn’t include a big comeback he staged over the struggling Chargers.
My purpose here is to jump in the time machine to late-September 2008, and try to determine how Campbell was attacking defenses when he was successful and had help vs. how he is being attacked by defensive coordinators now who, at present day, have Jason Campbell completely figured out.
When I went back and reviewed a game at Texas Stadium in 2008 between the Redskins and the Cowboys, the thing that stood out about Campbell was his accuracy and sense of timing. It wasn’t often in that game that Campbell was getting deep into his reads, but he was adjusting when he needed to and most of those plays were coming out of a three step drop passing game where if Campbell wasn’t going to throw it to his pre-snap read, he needed to get it away to his second or third option very quickly. The Redskins weren’t going to be able to protect him for four plus seconds. The reason that these plays worked is because Campbell was able to move the chains almost entirely off of route concepts that put the defenses in a bind. He was incredibly accurate with his passes in this game against the Cowboys.
However, most of Campbell’s completions in this game were short and quick. When the Redskins were able to get downfield passes, they would drop Campbell deeper, which would change the aiming point for the defensive ends, helping offensive tackles Chris Samuels and Jon Jansen. Campbell had assistance from receivers in adjusting hot to unblocked rushers for easy completions. Campbell was two for two in throwing downfield because Santana Moss was working the void in the coverage and Campbell was extending plays by working up in a deep pocket away from defensive ends.
The pass protection was not great, but it didn’t need to be. The route combinations were short, quick, and hard to follow for defensive backs. The quarterback action was complicated: a lot of built in pump fakes and play action passes when the Redskins were trying to go down the field. The Redskins were very limited in their use of the shotgun because they wanted to work quickly and change the angles of the edge rushers so that they couldn’t win their individual match-ups.
The biggest thing for Campbell was the amount of help his receivers Santana Moss and Antwaan Randle El provided him. Chris Cooley was in pass protection a lot in that game, and so Jim Zorn put the game in the hands of his receivers and young quarterback. He let them go out on early downs and move the ball efficiently to win the game. Campbell responded with one of the best days he would have as quarterback because he got comfortable early. The Redskins threw their first six passes short, then three unsuccessful deeper drops (two sacks and an incomplete). Then they went back to the highly successful short stuff with great success for nine consecutive plays. Campbell and Zorn were putting on a clinic. Campbell was playing at a speed that the Cowboys couldn’t match.
Let’s fast forward to the present day, where Campbell and the Raiders are facing the 49ers. After a 5 for 7 start for 28 yards which didn’t include a 9 yard scramble and a 46 yard pass interference penalty that was instrumental in putting the Raiders up 6-0. From that point forward, Campbell would not complete a pass in the next two quarters (0-for-4), and finish the game on a 3-14 cold streak that would include two interceptions. What gives?
The biggest difference was that present day Campbell does not play the game at a faster speed than the defense does. Campbell was highly and often critiqued for his footwork and spotty passing accuracy as a west coast quarterback, but a sprained ankle suffered in the first game of the 2009 season could directly explain why these criticisms were legitimate. The Redskins did not run very much west coast stuff in 2009, instead spending most of the season as a power-I formation rush offense that lacked an identity in the passing game.
In 2008, which included the Cowboys game, Jason Campbell had a single weakness in his game: he couldn’t convert third and long situations. When the Cowboys had shut him down, it was because they forced the Redskins into long yardage situations, then made the Redskins drop deeper and try to get the ball at the sticks, where they could break down a weak pass protection unit and sack a hesitant Campbell. He was sacked just twice in the Cowboys game, in 3rd and 9 and 3rd and 7.
Both of Campbell’s sacks in this 2010 game against the Niners came in first down situations. One wasn’t a sack so much as it was a backwards lateral that missed Michael Bush. The other was a horrible backside protection gaffe where the Raiders just kind of hoped they wouldn’t get blitzed off the backside with no hot receiver. Campbell saved the Raiders from a number of sacks in this game, much like he had done for the Redskins two years before. But unlike he did two years before, Campbell neither completed a majority of his passes, nor did he lead the Raiders to victory. That’s the question here: did Jason Campbell regress as a quarterback? Or is there something else at play here?
The biggest difference in Campbell of the last two years is actually an improvement. When we talk about the ever-critical 3rd down play by quarterbacks, we’re talking about a weakness that Campbell had in 2008 that was skirted by Jim Zorn’s willingness to run successful passing plays on first and second downs, dictate to the defense, and stay out of long third downs, if not all third downs. When you look at Campbell with the Raiders, it’s clear that the Raiders ask him to be a mature veteran who can help them convert third downs. Third was his best down in 2009, and in this game against San Francisco, it was also his most productive down. Campbell was called upon to throw on three of the team’s first four third down attempts, and although the pocket broke down on deep drops all three times, Campbell converted the first down twice with some great ad-libbing, both with his vision (finding Michael Bush, who had blown a block), and with his legs.
It was at that point that the Raiders made a curious decision to take the game out of Campbell’s hands on third down, running the ball with Michael Bush on the second drive until the 49ers stopped him, and then throwing a bubble screen to Jacoby Ford on the third drive. Campbell converted a deep out to Johnnie Lee Higgins on 3rd and 7 on the Raiders fourth drive, but he was rules out of bounds. After replays conclusively showed that Higgins caught Campbell’s pass on the sideline with both feet down, the Raiders punted, declining to challenge the call on the field. That was Campbell’s last throwing attempt until the fourth quarter of the game, coming with five minutes remaining in the second quarter. Campbell was just one of five on third downs in the fourth quarter, but that includes a drop by Michael Bush, a one-yard overthrow of Louis Murphy on a 50 yard pass down the sideline, and a dropped pass interception that hit Jacoby Ford between the “1” and the “2”. Clearly, Campbell came prepared to convert third downs on this game.
The problem for the Raiders was too many unsuccessful 1st and 2nd downs, leading directly to the need to convert the third downs listed above. When I went back to 2008, it was amazing how much the Redskins trusted Campbell in first and second down passes, and how pinpoint accurate he was on those passes. It was a completely different story last Sunday. Campbell was handed the ball 19 total times in first and second downs, and he just wasn’t very good. Here is your breakdown:
- 1 pass interference penalty for 46 yards
- 1 interception
- 2 times sacked based on missed pass protection assignment
- 1 dropped pass called back by holding
- 1 pass knocked down at the line
- 3 QB scrambles for just 5 yards
- 1 other dropped pass
- 2 passes defensed
- 1 pass thrown away
- 6 passes completed for just 54 yards
This, quite obviously, is not a good use of 19 plays and — while a small sampling — is an argument that Jason Campbell may have regressed. That’s a big reason why Campbell and the Raiders were in so many third downs over the course of that game.
A bigger reason may have been Michael Bush runs. On first and second down, Bush rushed 16 times for just 35 yards, and one successful carry, which was his first. The Raiders have decided that with Campbell as their quarterback, they are going to run in all first and second downs, and only pass when the game situation dictates it (i.e. they are losing in the fourth quarter).
It’s not that Campbell’s doing all this stuff wrong all of a sudden, as the next step in Campbell’s development would normally be to start taking big plays in the passing game, like he was able to do against the Chargers a week before. The difference is that there is no longer a fundamental passing game staple in his offense. When Campbell was successful as a Redskin, the team lived off of it’s three step drop passing game with multiple receivers in a west coast look. But as things have started to go south in his career, his offenses have adopted a simplified run-first mentality.
This would be effective if the Redskins and the Raiders could actually run the ball, but we’re looking at a pair 3.0 yard average rushing attacks being asked to pace an entire offense because teams don’t feel like they can protect the quarterback. The believe among league insiders is that Campbell has regressed, and that the speed of his reads has slowed to the point where he’s not getting to his 2nd or 3rd receivers in his progression. That goes against the film, which suggests that Campbell is handling pass pressure and sorting out his reads as well or likely better than in 2008, where deeper drop coverages by the opponent could make Campbell hold the ball for the extra count.
Because of the ability flashed by Campbell to handle the responsibility of a timing west-coast styled passing game in 2008, there’s little evidence that Campbell has regressed when he is doing the best job of his career at handling critical third downs with maturity and without panic. If it can be concluded that Jason Campbell has not regressed as an NFL quarterback as many say he has, then the responsibility for the decline in his statistics over the last two seasons needs to be placed on the Washington and Oakland football organizations for pairing him with teammates who cannot handle the speed of NFL offenses and keep their quarterback throwing in rhythm.
Oakland can expect to receive more from Campbell when and only when they commit to giving him what he needs to succeed.