On Saturday, prior to the Cowboys game, Michael Wilbon wrote a piece on why Jason Campbell needs to start. I wanted to wait until after the Cowboys game to address it just in case something dramatic happened that would invalidate any attempt to put Jason Campbell in the game.
Something dramatic did happen: the Redskins snuck past the Cowboys in spite of themselves thanks to last minute heroics by Troy Vincent and Sean Taylor. I'd love to say that Mark Brunell played amazingly, and unquestionably silenced any critics with a game-winning performance. I'd like to say that he earned respite from this debate for at least another week.
I don't think that happened.
Despite being an efficient 14 of 23 for 192 yards and a touchdown, Mark Brunell did not necessarily impress. He threw one pass into the waiting arms of a Cowboys defender and another had to be batted away on a brilliant defensive play by Brandon Lloyd (with the way our secondary has played this year, did anyone else see a potential position change for Lloyd?). He also managed to bounce the football off his helmet in what would lead to a scoring drive for Dallas. [For the record, the official play-by-play lists it as a FUMBLE (Aborted). On this election eve I ask readers: Should NFL Quarterbacks be allowed to abort footballs? The answer is no. Catch the damn ball, Mark.]
This wasn't a bad game, and certainly doesn't strengthen the argument for JC. But I don't think it was strong enough to silence the debate. With that in mind let's examine a few of Wilbon's arguments:
First, I made a similar case a few weeks ago and I stand by it. More important than learning if Jason Campbell is the future of this team is finding out expeditiously that he is not; if he's a bust our entire franchise would be served by knowing that sooner rather than later.
I also think it is highly unlikely that he is a categorical downgrade from Brunell, especially given the throws that Brunell has been making. We did look downfield more against Dallas than we usually do (which is good) but Brunell wasn't necessarily making great decisions with the ball. Most of our passes this year have been on short routes, and we throw check downs to our running backs more than virtually any team in the league besides the New Orleans Saints. If Jason Campbell is incapable of making these throws then he is not fit to play QB in this league.
At the very least get Jason Campbell some playing time. The end of the Indy game was a perfect, though missed opportunity to do so.
I think there is definitely something to the criticism though. Mark Brunell historically is, if nothing else, a quarterback who minimizes mistakes. At this point in his career he might be playing not to lose his position which has more to do with limiting errors than making big plays in the passing game. Any offense predicated on making plays down the field will suffer with this kind of mentality as it limits the amount of field in play significantly. Sometimes, perhaps not all the time, it is better to test a cornerback 1 on 1 against one of your receivers -- especially if you're as deep in that position as we are -- then to make the safe pass to a checked down receiver or throw the ball away. Even if throwing the ball deep only results in a disrupted incomplete pass, it forces the defense to respect the deep route. This puts safeties deeper in the field and allows the receivers to get open elsewhere on the field, which will yield yards and first downs later in the game. Keeping the entire offensive receiving unit in front of the defense never challenges them to beat you deep, meaning they can play aggressively on or near the line of scrimmage.
Whatever else you might think about Campbell, he will not develop into a legitimate starter over night. It could take many games to do so, and if he is the future of this team then we'd be better served down the road by getting him valuable experience now.
I doubt that Campbell will get the chance after the Dallas win, since Brunell likely earned another few weeks from the coaching staff, at least. But I would urge that we put Campbell in as the backup immediately and that our team be prepared to play him should the game get out of reach. Padding Brunell's stats at the end of the Indy game did nothing for this franchise.
We are now officially halfway through our NFL season. With only 8 teams on our schedule remaining, gametime experience is a quickly disappearing commodity in 2006. Get the kid some snaps.