Jason Campbell has been counted out many times. So it was nothing new when people were ready to write him off following a subpar performance vs. the Bengals and a concussion that knocked him out of the Pittsburgh game and caused him to miss a start.
But Campbell, 31, hasn’t stuck around the NFL for nine seasons and started 76 games without having talent and resilience. So it shouldn’t have been a surprise that he came back with a career-high 391 passing yards and three touchdowns and almost beat Tom Brady last week in New England.
“I just feel like I needed to get back out there just because of a rhythm standpoint,” he said this week while preparing for a visit today from Chicago. “I haven’t been able to play in a stretch of games for a long time and to have that opportunity to be playing at that time and then to have to have a setback where you’re sitting at home, I just felt like a lot of me wanted to get back out there and be healthy and see where I can go and get back to playing.”
Campbell, the forgotten man for a good chunk of the season, has thrust himself back into what promises to be an interesting conversation about what the Browns will do at quarterback next season. The scenarios are endless, but the discussion begins with the passers already on the team.
Brandon Weeden seems unlikely to be back for a third season, but Campbell and Brian Hoyer are also under contract for 2014 and could return. Hoyer went 3-0 as the starter this year before suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament and is expected to be ready for training camp. Depending on which quarterback the Browns draft, when they draft him and how quickly he develops, Hoyer and Campbell could spend the preseason competing to be the Week 1 starter.
“I have a two-year contract here. They have an option in February whether they want to bring me back,” Campbell said. “My goal is to keep doing the things that I can to improve as a quarterback.”
When Hoyer was injured, he seemed set to return as the No. 1 veteran, assuming the knee healed as expected. But Campbell has spent the last couple of months stating his case, beginning with an eye-opening first start against Kansas City.
He posted ratings of 105.4 vs. the Chiefs, 116.6 vs. the Ravens – his only win in five starts – and 116.8 vs. the Patriots. He dipped to 44.3 vs. Cincinnati, but that can be blamed on three deflected interceptions and painful ribs. His rating vs. Pittsburgh was 78.6 before the concussion.
His three healthy starts were individual successes and came in a home win over the Ravens and narrow road losses to likely playoff teams Kansas City and New England.
“Being healthy is a big part of it, just feeling comfortable and being able to do things,” Campbell said. “When I had the rib injury, I really didn’t talk much about it, but it really does affect the way you throw. You really can’t follow through with a lot of throws and you can’t move and be as active as you usually are. But when you’re healthy I feel like it gives me the best opportunity to reach my maximum ability.”
The sore ribs and concussion aren’t his first injuries to come at a terrible time. Campbell believed he was finally in the right situation and playing his best when he suffered a broken collarbone with Oakland in 2011 after a 4-2 start.
“A lot of it has been injuries at times and some of it has just been a different offensive coordinator or a different system every other year,” he said. “But everyone’s career is different and through mine it’s just been persevering and moving forward and not getting distracted when things do happen and just try to make the most of it.”
The collarbone injury instantly turned Campbell into a backup in the view of general managers across the league. He spent last season behind Jay Cutler in Chicago, then chose the Browns over the Bears in the offseason because he saw a greater opportunity to play. Weeden obliged with poor play, and Campbell embraced his latest chance.
Then his next latest chance after the concussion.
“Timing is everything with quarterbacks,” said first-year Bears coach Marc Trestman, who tutored Campbell coming out of Auburn in 2005. “Every quarterback is on his own journey and they have their time where they may be surrounded with the best resources of players and coaches and it kind of all ties together and things start to happen.
“I’m happy for his opportunity. He’s had times where he’s played very, very well. He’s got the ability to do that. He’s very smart, smooth, got a good arm, can move around and make plays.”
The postseason dreams have slipped away from the Browns, but there’s plenty at stake in the final three weeks besides trying to play spoiler. For Campbell, it’s staking his claim to a future in Cleveland, possibly as the starter.
But he doesn’t think the next three games will decide his fate.
“I really don’t worry about the things that may happen after the season or the year after,” he said. “My goal right now is to take it one game at a time and just do the best that I can do and just keep moving forward. I’ve been in situations where things change all the time and you just can’t put yourself in position where you let those things distract you.”
Campbell has already proved plenty to coaches and teammates. He’s completed 58.9 percent of his passes (27th in the league) with nine touchdowns, three interceptions and an 88.0 rating. His attempts rank near the bottom of the league because of his limited snaps, but the touchdown percentage (4.6) ranks 17th, the interception percentage (1.5) fifth and the rating 15th.
“Jason has done a great job when he’s been in there for us,” left tackle Joe Thomas said. “He doesn’t throw interceptions, he throws the ball where it needs to go, seems to have a good understanding of defenses and reading coverages, getting protection in the right spot. And he’s moved the ball for us, and that’s really the bottom line as a quarterback, are you moving the ball down the field and not turning it over? And Jason has done an excellent job.”
Thomas has blocked for too many quarterbacks in Cleveland to waste energy thinking about who will be the man next season. But he’s convinced the Browns could win with Campbell in the starting role.
“Definitely. We’ve proved it this year,” he said. “He’s certainly got the capability to lead this team to victory every week.”
Coach Rob Chudzinski and coordinator Norv Turner will have a lot to say in what happens at quarterback next season. They both appreciate Campbell’s ability to avoid turnovers and believe he can be successful as the starter in their system.
“He’s shown that he can do it,” Chudzinski said. “Really, it’s a matter of consistency, continuity, availability. That’s what we’re striving for at that position.”