CINCINNATI: After the 41-20 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, members of the Browns’ front office have to be questioning everything they thought they knew about quarterback Jason Campbell.
Is he the calm, collected leader they saw against the Kansas City Chiefs and Baltimore Ravens? The nine-year veteran who played through bruised ribs two weeks ago? The 31-year-old who became the first Brown since 1966 to compile a passer rating of more than 100 in his first two starts?
Or is he the player who had happy feet for 60 minutes in Paul Brown Stadium? The one who continually missed open receivers, especially in the first quarter, when the Browns managed only two field goals despite getting to the Bengals’ 1- and 10-yard lines in the first quarter? The erratic passer who seemed to crumble under pressure in the Browns’ biggest game since 2007?
Was Campbell the victim of a talented, aggressive Bengals’ defense? Or did the Bengals need only two game tapes to figure out how to defend him?
Was he hurting more than he let on from the rib injury suffered Nov. 3? Or did Campbell merely revert back to the form he showed in training camp when he was unable to beat out Brandon Weeden?
Those euphoric over the recent performance of Campbell, who came into the AFC North showdown Sunday against the division-leading Bengals with a 106.6 rating, may have been — in the immortal words of Derek Anderson — smoking crack. There was even talk among fans that the impressive efforts of Campbell and Brian Hoyer, out for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, might allow the Browns to use both their first-round draft picks on other positions next May.
If that ever was a possibility, it might be moot now.
Even if Campbell just had a bad afternoon, the fact that it came when the Browns (4-6) could have closed to within a half-game of the Bengals (7-4) with a victory may make some on the second floor of Browns headquarters wonder if he should be part of their short-term future.
Campbell’s numbers won’t be easy to forget. He completed 27-of-56 passes for 248 yards and a touchdown with three interceptions. Linebacker James Harrison’s pick-off of a tipped ball with 44 seconds left in the first quarter ignited a record-setting 31-point second quarter for the Bengals. Campbell’s quarterback rating of 44.3 was worse than the 53.4 posted by Anderson on Dec. 23, 2007, when Anderson threw four interceptions in Cincinnati as the Browns were trying to clinch a playoff berth.
The magnitude of that game drew comparisons to this one, especially since the Bengals were reeling from two consecutive losses.
Campbell said all the right things. He wouldn’t use his injury as an excuse. He took the blame for the Browns’ loss, even though a blocked punt and another that was partially blocked set up two Bengals’ touchdowns.
“I’m very disappointed. I’m disappointed in myself more than anything,” Campbell said. “The opportunity, we let go by. I thought I was being a leader coming out here. I’ve got to set the tempo early in the game. I’ve got to finish those drives in the red zone and give us some points, especially early, so we can put some room between ourselves and them. I put the onus on my shoulders.”
For most of the game, Campbell seemed to be morphing into Weeden, who has problems under pressure, or turning into Captain Checkdown. That was also the knock on him when he played for the Chicago Bears last season. Running back Chris Ogbonnaya and tight end Jordan Cameron led the Browns in catches with six apiece and their 12 totaled 59 yards.
Receiver Josh Gordon, who pulled in a 74-yard touchdown pass among his five receptions for 125 yards, insisted that the Bengals didn’t take away the deep ball.
“They didn’t take it away at all,” Gordon said. “That’s what Jason was reading was the checkdown. I’m pretty sure they were getting a good rush on him, it’s a great defensive line they’ve got.”
Gordon defended Campbell, saying: “We handed them the game and the offense couldn’t get it rolling fast enough, then the bad weather kicks in. It’s different variables, but you can’t blame it on him at all.”
Browns coach Rob Chudzinski said Campbell had “a tough day” but also cited protection issues.
“Sometimes if the protection isn’t there or he doesn’t see a particular guy, he’ll check it down,” Chudzinski said. “Sometimes the guys weren’t open. So it’s a variety of things.”
Even though Campbell failed in the clutch, Browns players know he provides their best chance to win. When he was hurt against the Ravens, running back Willis McGahee wouldn’t have begged Campbell to get up off the ground, saying “We need you,” if they had faith in Weeden.
Campbell has six more games to redeem himself, starting Sunday at home against the rival Pittsburgh Steelers. His performance against the Bengals could have been an aberration. But so, too, could have been the two that came before it.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.