Campbell fully prepared to lead Redskins

ASHBURN, Va. -- There's a funny story that Washington Redskins wide receiver Antwaan Randle El likes to tell about third-year quarterback Jason Campbell.

It goes back to Washington's 20-17 loss to Tampa Bay last season, a game that also happened to be Campbell's first NFL start. As Randle El tells it, Campbell was so green that afternoon that he actually called a play in the huddle that included the wrong formation.

"By the time we got to the line of scrimmage, we were all pretty confused," Randle El says. "I know I was thinking that something didn't sound right when Jason called the play. But he knows the offense much better now."

This story is valuable for two reasons. One is that it still makes players such as Randle El chuckle nine months later. The other is that it's an example of how far Campbell has come since his first day on the job. In one offseason, the young quarterback has transformed himself from a raw, wide-eyed novice into a confident, eager leader of a team hoping to bounce back from a disappointing 5-11 season. And the best thing about Campbell is that he already feels comfortable in his role as a full-time starter.

As he left Redskins Park after a practice Wednesday morning, he talked about how nice it is to enter a season with the experience he acquired by starting the final seven games in 2006.

"I really gained a lot from that," said Campbell, who completed 53.1 percent of his passes with 10 touchdowns and six interceptions last season. "It's one thing to sit and learn, but you can only get so much doing that. I had the chance to learn from being on the field, and that's really going to help me this year."

This isn't to say that Campbell didn't gain anything from watching as a backup behind Mark Brunell. During most of the past two seasons, Campbell took extensive notes while standing on the sideline so he could recognize all the different looks opposing defenses could throw at him. He watched how Brunell handled himself in the huddle, and he eagerly accepted whatever tips Brunell offered. Campbell knew his time was coming, and he wanted to be ready for his opportunity.

That approach, coupled with those seven starts, has helped Campbell develop quickly this offseason. In fact, his receivers say he already is releasing the ball earlier on pass plays. Last season, he had a dangerous habit of holding the ball until his receivers made their breaks, then firing passes into tight coverage. Now, Campbell is throwing the ball before his receivers make their cuts. Said Randle El: "That's a sign that he trusts us to be where we're supposed to be."

Campbell also has a better grasp of the offense. He gave himself one week of rest during the offseason, and that was only so he'd have time to enjoy the Fourth of July. Even when Campbell wasn't with the team, he was still working. Most nights, he would take home a series of DVDs to study the throws he attempted during workouts and
minicamp practices. If Campbell was going to struggle in his first season as a starter, it wasn't going to be attributable to a lack of preparation.

What Campbell understood was that this offseason provided a rare opportunity for him to learn. Before this season, he had spent the past six years of his career learning a new offense. He had four different offensive coordinators at Auburn, and the Redskins hired Al Saunders to hold the same job one season after Campbell entered the NFL.

"This is the first time in six years that I haven't had to start over from scratch," Campbell said. "Instead of learning new plays, I can actually watch film of the things I did last year and see how I can get better."

When Campbell watched that film in the spring, he saw things that bolstered his confidence. Despite his mistakes, he noticed that he wasn't that far from making the kinds of plays he needs to produce in this offense. The next step is for him to take that knowledge and elevate his game. He also is willing to heed the advice he has received from former Redskins quarterbacks such as Doug Williams, Joe Theismann and Brad Johnson, who all advised Campbell to play within himself and let his supporting cast help him.

Campbell certainly won't lack for assistance, by the way. He'll have a strong running game with the talented tandem of Clinton Portis and Ladell Betts. He'll have a sturdy offensive line as long as left tackle Chris Samuels returns promptly from a sprained right knee that is expected to sideline him for a month. And after an offseason of throwing to receivers Randle El, Santana Moss and Brandon Lloyd, Campbell should have better timing with that group.

"When you're the backup, you rarely get a chance to work with the first-team receivers," Redskins head coach Joe Gibbs said. "Now that Jason is the starter, he'll have a chance to find his rhythm."

One thing Gibbs tries to do is temper the expectations placed on Campbell. He knows how easy it is for the pressure to get to a player so eager to begin his tenure as a full-time starter. But it already looks as though Campbell is ready to deal with all the scrutiny that comes with his position. He has waited for this opportunity. He's prepared for it. And he knows his success comes down to one thing: putting his teammates in the right position to win games.

Jeffri Chadiha is a senior writer for ESPN.com.