Jason Campbell stands and watches, just like the spectators and reporters who have come to Bourbonnais to see the team practice on a sunny Sunday afternoon.
He is tall and lean, and wears a bright orange No. 2 jersey that symbolizes to his teammates that he isn’t to be hit during drills. The eight-year NFL veteran stands just a few feet from starting quarterback Jay Cutler during a seven-on-seven passing drill, with his eyes locked on the action in front of him. As Cutler drops back and looks for an open receiver, Campbell follows his teammate, trying to see what Cutler sees.
Play after play: Cutler throws, Campbell watches.
Thus is the life for an NFL backup signal caller. It is exactly the position most Bears fans hope Campbell will assume all season long, as Cutler stays healthy on the field and leads the Bears to win after win.
Campbell, 30 years old, who has started 70 games during his professional career with the Washington Redskins and Oakland Raiders, is the team’s new backup, and he is getting used to that role and everything it means.
“The preparation part doesn’t change at all as far as coming out and preparing yourself for practice and getting ready for games,” he told ChicagoSide. “The only thing that really changes is that you don’t get a lot of snaps with the (starters). So you have to make sure that you’re paying attention in the classroom, paying attention when we’re out on the field, watching Jay, make sure you’re watching all his signals and his checks and everything, so that I can stay on top of it and make sure that I’m ready.”
During this two-and-a-half hour practice session, Cutler took about 60 percent of the snaps, including all of them with fellow first-teamers such as wide receiver Brandon Marshall and running back Matt Forte. Campbell and fellow backup quarterbacks Josh McCown and Matt Blanchard split the remaining 40 percent of the snaps. Once the games start, there will be even less work available for Campbell and the backups, making the job even tougher.
“You just have to take a lot of mental reps, be on it mentally, and take advantage of the reps you do get,” said McCown, the team’s third-string quarterback and a 10-year NFL veteran. “Training camp is huge for a backup, because this is when you’re going to get the most reps. You still aren’t getting as much as the starter, but you’re getting a lot of reps right now. Jason’s still getting a lot of good time, so I think he is building a solid foundation.”
Campbell is the Bears’ primary backup this fall because the 2011 season didn’t go as planned—for either Campbell or Cutler. Both quarterbacks were leading their respective teams—Campbell with the Raiders, Cutler with the Bears—to impressive starts before injuries struck. Oakland was en route to a 4-2 record when Campbell broke his collarbone during a mid-October game. Less than a week later, the team made a trade with the Cincinnati Bengals for veteran Carson Palmer, and Campbell’s starting job was gone. Cutler had the Bears at 7-3 when he broke a bone in his thumb pushing a defender out of bounds following an interception. The team lost five of their final six games, and missed the postseason.
With that in mind, both parties wanted something new for 2012. Campbell wanted to be welcome somewhere, even if he knew he’d have to come off the bench; the Bears wanted a dependable backup in case Cutler went down again. On the first day of free agency last March, Campbell and the Bears agreed to a one-year, $3.5 million deal. A columnist for NFL.com praised the signing, calling Campbell the second-best backup quarterback in the league.
“Well, you know it’s a good football team, an opportunity to contend for it all,” Campbell said, adding that he’s 100 percent healed from the injury that ended his 2011 season.
Still, the adjustment to the backup role has been tricky. As a starter, he’s used to developing a rapport with his receivers and running backs through the repetitions accumulated over hours of practice, finding out where they like the ball thrown and how they prefer it handed off. Nor has he had the time to mesh with his offensive line the way he would like. That was an issue with the Bears a year ago, when Cutler was out with the thumb injury and replacement quarterback Caleb Hanie took 19 sacks in just four games, all of which were losses.
Of course, if all goes according to plan, it won’t matter; Campbell’s job will be to hold a clipboard on the sideline, offer words of encouragement to his teammates, and play a few fourth quarters in Bears blowouts. But if Campbell does play meaningful minutes this season he could turn out to be the most important player on the roster—a second string savior or a Hanie redux.
Campbell gets it. For now, he’s doing and saying all the right things, sounding very much the pro, even in handling the media.
“I’ve been in the league for a while,” he said. “I just want to go back out there, and if the opportunity presents itself, give it my all.”