By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com
The Morning Kickoff …
Standing tall: As the Browns head into their most meaningful stretch of games in six years beginning Sunday in Cincinnati, the man commanding the most respect in their locker room is Jason Campbell.
Fate has cast Campbell in the role of field leader on a team that passed him over twice for the job this year alone.
He did not complain as then-No. 3 Brian Hoyer was chosen ahead of him to start Game 3 when season starter Brandon Weeden was out with a thumb injury. He didn’t flinch when Weeden, one day out of a cast on his hand, was rushed into Game 5 after Hoyer was felled with a season-ending knee injury.
When Weeden was pulled for good after two ineffective starts, Campbell came in and sparked the comeback that has propelled the Browns back into relevance after a long respite.
First came his composed, near-upset of the undefeated Chiefs in hostile Kansas City, which earned him instant respect among his new teammates. Then came the conquest of franchise-nemesis Baltimore after 11 consecutive losses to the Ravens.
Campbell credits his calm, confident rise to the occasion to an inner strength he acquired through the cruel experience of losing his job and his roster spot to injury with the Oakland Raiders two years ago.
“I really can’t express how elated I am for him,” said Browns defensive end Desmond Bryant, who was a teammate of Campbell’s in Oakland. “It’s one of the heartwarming things about being on a football team, seeing one of your brothers come from kind of at the bottom and now doing well and succeeding.”
Payback: The compelling irony of this moment in Campbell’s nine-year NFL career is that the coach that discarded him in Oakland is now opposing him in Cincinnati.
Bengals running backs coach Hue Jackson was Raiders head coach when Campbell suffered a broken collarbone on Oct. 16, 2011 at the hands of – another irony – the Browns. Playing the best football of his career, which began as a No. 1 pick of the Redskins in 2005, Campbell had led the Raiders to a 4-2 record.
The week before the NFL trade deadline, Jackson hurriedly induced old friend Carson Palmer out of semi-retirement and traded two high draft picks to the Bengals, who held Palmer’s contract.
The Raiders went south, losing six of 10 games with Palmer, validating Campbell’s status as the Raiders’ sole leader. All of which cost Jackson his job. After that sobering experience, Campbell left Oakland for a backup job in Chicago to bide his time until the next starting opportunity.
“After I got hurt in Oakland and, of course, the trade went down with Carson Palmer, you find yourself on the outside looking in,” Campbell said. “You’re going to go through highs and lows in this business. You just have to continue pressing on. Don’t doubt yourself through situations. That’s my whole mindset from Day One since the injury and trade happened. Was it heartfelt? Yeah, it hurt a little bit. It stung. But I think it made me a stronger person and made me become who I am right now.”
In Cincinnati this week, Jackson spoke admiringly of Campbell.
"He has great leadership,” he said. “He'll take the cast of guys there and he'll get them to play well. Because he'll distribute the ball well, he'll manage the game, he'll make big throws, and he'll run with the ball. He's tough and he's smart. He's doing a good job. I just don't want him to do it this week."
Right man, right time: The vast majority of the Browns have never been involved in meaningful games this late in a season. It is a comfort to the coaches, and to the team, to have an experienced quarterback leading them into unchartered territory.
“He’s a guy that I know when tough stretches comes, he can respond to that adversity and battle through those tough stretches, and that’s a key to that position,” said coach Rob Chudzinski.
In Kansas City, Campbell regrouped his team from a nearly disastrous beginning and threw a scare into the Chiefs and their loud faithful.
“Communication is one of the most important things,” Campbell said of playing on the road. “I think second is being patient. Understanding that you have to ride the wave from the beginning when it’s loud and teams are pumped. You have to try to keep yourself on an even keel.”
Campbell has been excellent at that. Off the field, his pulse hardly registers.
“The thing that you try to stress to these guys is that you’re going to have ups and downs if you’re playing in the NFL,” said offensive coordinator Norv Turner. “Every play doesn’t go smooth, every quarter is not going to go smooth, every game is not going to go the way you want. But if you approach it the way Jason has, and he’s had some ups and downs, obviously, starting in August in terms of his situation. He’s come in here each day and you wouldn’t know if he was the starter and we’re on a win streak or if he’s a guy who was told he wasn’t going to play. He’s approached it the same way.”
Campbell said one change he has made at this point in his career was to not put added pressure on himself and just go out and have fun.
“In Oakland, I saw him smile a lot more,” Bryant said. “But I know he’s having fun here and having a great time.”
|Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com. |
He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to firstname.lastname@example.orgFollow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi
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