ASHBURN, Va. -- Jason Campbell is starting to feel the pressure. And not just because he's been sacked 32 times.
As the fortunes of the Washington Redskins offense have plummeted, so has the praise that was heaped on the quarterback early in the season. Campbell could do no wrong when he was posting back-to-back-to-back games with a 100-plus rating in September; now he's the focal point of criticism after throwing just four touchdown passes in the eight games since.
"People don't get it," Campbell said Wednesday. "They say, 'Ah, they're learning a new offense.' They think it's the quarterback that's learning the new offense. They don't understand that everybody around you is learning an offense, too."
Campbell didn't raise his voice -- he never does -- but there was just a touch of exasperation in his voice. It's expected when a team loses three out of four, and when memories of last year are still fresh. It was a year ago this week that veteran Todd Collins, getting the nod after Campbell injured a knee, led the Redskins to four straight victories and a playoff spot.
The Redskins (7-5) might need another 4-0 December to return to the postseason, but as of now there are no plans to call on Collins again. Coach Jim Zorn, while assessing Campbell's performance as "very average" in Sunday's 23-7 loss to the New York Giants, is sticking with his young quarterback, warts and all.
"I like the direction he's going, and I like how he's conscious of playing better and better each week," Zorn said. "And he's conscious at practice. He doesn't let down. Are we getting all the results we want every week? No. But we're pushing."
Zorn has to walk the fine line of critiquing without bruising the psyche. The emotional coach who, by his own admission, was "whining and crying" on the sidelines against the Giants tries to keep an even keel when dealing with his quarterback.
"Does he have to be corrected? Absolutely. Does he have to be encouraged? Yes. And does he have to be told the truth? I don't hold back. I don't try to call and go, 'You know Jason, it's going to be OK,"' said Zorn, clasping his hands and speaking in a hushed voice.
"No. We push hard, because that's the way it is. You've got to take it like a man. And you know? He does."
Zorn said one of Campbell's problems is the quarterback's inability to set aside a bad play while the game is still in progress.
"He takes those errors he made a series ago, and he's still got it in his mind," Zorn said. "I want to keep him pushing forward, but he's so angry with himself. He wants to talk about it with me. 'Wait a minute, that happened two series ago.' We are moving much further on down the road. If you brood on those errors, then you can't play the next series. He's found himself brooding."
Campbell's numbers tell the story of an offense still trying to find its way in the first year under Zorn. While he leads the league in interception percentage -- only four of his 378 passes have been picked off -- Campbell is in the bottom third in touchdown passes (10) and average gain per completion (6.77 yards). His last completion of more than 30 yards came five weeks ago against winless Detroit.
In Campbell's defense, the Redskins have played some tough defenses lately (Pittsburgh, Dallas, New York) and have another one coming up this week (Baltimore), although the points didn't exactly flow against weaker teams like Seattle (20), Cleveland (14) and St. Louis (17).
Only three quarterbacks have been sacked more than Campbell, a sign that the aging linemen aren't holding their own. Receivers James Thrash, Devin Thomas and Malcolm Kelly have contributed very little, putting too much onus on Santana Moss, Antwaan Randle El and tight end Chris Cooley. Amazingly, Campbell has yet to throw a touchdown pass to Cooley this season.
Clinton Portis has carried the offense in several games, but he's playing with knee, rib and neck injuries, and defenses more and more have focused on stopping him above all else. Also, opponents now have a book on Zorn, so he not catching defenses off guard as much.
"We started out so fast," Campbell said. "We got on such a streak that we were scoring so fast that expectations and everything on our team went through the roof, and people forgot we were still in this thing in its first year."
Teammates say Campbell has the temperament to handle the disproportional amount of pressure that goes with playing quarterback, although, it must be pointed out, Campbell has never led a playoff-contending team during the final month of the season.
"We lose or we win, he's going to take the credit or he's going to take the heat," said cornerback Carlos Rogers, who also played with Campbell at Auburn. "Sometimes, unfortunately, he didn't even take the credit for us winning. It was Clinton. Then we won, and, 'Oh, no, Coach Zorn did this.' I just hope Jason doesn't get discouraged about what he hears."