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Playing It Smart

In a crazy year for NFL quarterbacks, no story is as unlikely as that of Kerry Collins, who seized his last chance and has coolly led the Titans to 12--1

IF YOU play longenough, you will see it all. You will see yourself one game from the Super Bowlat age 24, clueless and flying on instinct, only to crash and burn less thantwo years later, accused of racism and cowardice, captured on pre-YouTube videoleaving a drunk tank, teetering metaphorically at the edge of a cliff. You willsee yourself rehabilitated two years later and this time playing all the way tothe Super Bowl—where you throw four passes to the wrong team. You will seeyourself in god-awful silver-and-black football purgatory and then in Tennesseeon the ceremonial last stop before retirement, the backup to a mold-breakingsuperstar-in-the-making. ¬∂ You will find yourself, at 35, on your cattle farmin North Carolina in the summer of 2008, with your wife and young daughter, andyou'll think that maybe 13 years of playing quarterback in the NFL is enough.Especially after you've tested the limits of professional survival in every wayimaginable and emerged the better for it. You'll think it's a little bit harderto leave for yet another training camp.

But you will getinto your Chevy Suburban and begin the drive to Nashville, 7 1/2 hours west onI-40. And the emotions will come flooding back, as they have for more than 20Julys, since your high school days in Central Pennsylvania. "Old familiarfeelings," you'll say later. "I started to get fired up."

You are ready tospend one last season wearing a baseball cap on the sideline. "But this isa funny business," you say. "Things happen. Things you don't expect tohappen." Like the young superstar-to-be's meltdown in Week 1, asking out ofa game in the face of hometown booing, spraining his knee and then goingmissing for one long, strange night. The job is yours, and everything fallsinto place, and damn near the middle of December, after a 28--9 win over theCleveland Browns, the Tennessee Titans are 12--1 and you are their leader andtheir lifeline. And now you really have seen it all.

"Thingshappened early in my career. There's something that drives all of us who havebeen in this game for a long time. For me, a lot of it is trying to atone forthose things so that they're not my legacy."
—Kerry Collins, December 2008

NFL PLAYERS cutno slack for reserves thrust into starting roles. "Guys expect the secondguy to step up," says Titans center Kevin Mawae, a 15-year veteran."Especially at quarterback." It happens every week. Still, thecircumstances surrounding Collins's ascension in Tennessee were outside thenorm. Vince Young was the new face of the franchise, an electrifyingrunner-passer who had taken the Titans to the playoffs in 2007, his secondseason, and who could rescue a lost game with his extraordinary skills.Suddenly, before the team's opening game of '08 was finished, Young wasstruggling (two interceptions), had to be talked back into the game by coachJeff Fisher and then injured his left knee.

It was Collins,signed by Tennessee in '06 to help smooth Young's transition to the pro game,who secured that Week 1 victory. He finished an insurance drive to give theTitans a 17--7 lead, and they held on to win 17--10. A week later, afterconcerns about Young's psychological state prompted a call to the police,Collins was named the starting quarterback. In that maelstrom the Titans beatthe Cincinnati Bengals 24--7. A week later, at home against Houston, Collins'sfirst pass was intercepted. On the second offensive series of the game heentered the huddle and said, "Now that we got that out of the way, let'splay some football."

Such is themeasure of Collins's cool that the transition to a veteran who lacks theathleticism to execute the plays created for Young has been seamless. "IfKerry had laid an egg, there would have been problems in the locker room,"says Mawae. "But he came in, played successfully and challenged guys toelevate their games."

Collins is partof a veteran resurgence at the NFL's most important position. No fewer thanfive quarterbacks who are 35 or older—Brett Favre of the New York Jets (39),Jeff Garcia of the Tampa Bay Bucs (38), Kurt Warner of the Arizona Cardinals(37), Gus Frerotte of the Minnesota Vikings (37) and Collins—have led theirteams into strong playoff positions. No common reason is apparent save theobvious: Been there, seen that. How else do you compare a dead-solidfirst-ballot Hall of Famer like Favre and a journeyman like Frerotte? Or agunslinger like Warner and a stable, ball-control quarterback like Collins?

Seldom hasCollins compiled great individual statistics, and this year is no exception. Heranks in the bottom third of the league in nearly every major passing category.But he also has thrown only four interceptions, and in November wins overChicago and Jacksonville, when defenses filled the box to stop Tennessee'spotent ground game, he passed for an average of just under 260 yards. "Weare a run-oriented team," says Fisher, "but in a number of games thisyear we've had to pick it up and throw it."

Early last weekCollins sat at the front edge of a couch in the players' lounge at the Titans'practice facility. With a heavy flannel shirt and some Favreian salt-and-pepperstubble, he looked every bit the gentleman farmer that he is in the off-season.This year has been a gift of sorts, and Collins knows it. "Of course Ididn't expect this," he says. "But a lot of what happens for aquarterback in this league depends on what kind of car you've got to drive.This is a pretty good car."

Yet every gamethat Collins wins, every play he makes, is a measure of his survival. In 1996he took Carolina to the NFC Championship Game in his second year out of PennState (and the Panthers' second year in existence), seemingly grabbing successby the throat. But it was a hoax. "Kerry had the swagger and confidence ofa football player," says Steve Beuerlein, Carolina's veteran backup thatseason, "but at the same time he would look at me and say, 'Dude, I have noidea why it's going so well. I have no idea what's going on half the time outthere.'"

Collins was alsohitting Charlotte bars hard, and he fell as quickly as he'd risen. One nightduring training camp in '97 he came back to the team quarters drunk and used aracial slur to refer to a teammate. In a preseason game his jaw was broken on ahit by Denver's Bill Romanowski, yet Collins was back in the lineup by Week 3of the regular season. "He played when we never should have let himplay," says Bill Polian, then the general manager of the Panthers and nowthe G.M. of the Colts.

The Panthers went7--9. Collins threw 11 touchdown passes and 21 picks. The pressure intensified.Beuerlein recalls sitting with Collins in the locker room one evening early inthe '98 season and the younger QB saying, "I can't handle this. How can youdo this? You've been playing forever. I need to get away. I don't think I wantto be a quarterback and all the stuff that goes with it, being the face of thefranchise, people watching me everywhere I go. I just want to be a rock star. Idon't want the rest of it."

Collins remembersthe same period. "I thought the glory and the fame were reasons to dothis," he says. "I was wrong. I was really wrong. And I had to learnthat by being on the downside of it."

THE DOWNSIDE wasugly. Before Carolina's fifth game of the 1998 season, coach Dom Capers toldreporters that Collins had come to him and said he no longer had the heart tolead the team. (Collins has repeatedly contested the full accuracy of thatstatement.) His teammates recoiled, and Warren Sapp, then playing for TampaBay, publicly called him a coward. A week later Collins was put on waivers andsigned by the New Orleans Saints. The Carolina chapter of his life didn't cometo a full close until three weeks later, when New Orleans played at Charlotte.Collins, who didn't appear in the game, was arrested for drunken driving thatnight after a party with former teammates. Video shot by a Charlotte televisionstation of his release from jail—shuffling along with a cigar in hismouth—appeared widely on news reports around the country.

At the end of theseason Collins spent eight weeks in rehab. "The biggest thing I needed todo was learn to live without alcohol," says Collins, "and I didthat." (Collins also added last week, "I don't want there to be anymisconception. For nine years I didn't drink a drop. Occasionally I do now. I'mat such a different point in my life. But I don't want to sit here and act likeI'm something when I'm not.") He also learned how to handle the scrutinythat comes with being an NFL quarterback. "You almost have to learn toshelter your mind from what's being said in the outside world. It's an acquiredskill. Media, fans, good games, bad games. You have to create a disconnectbetween those things and your job."

The New YorkGiants signed Collins in February '99, giving him a chance to restart hiscareer. "We spent the better part of a day together, just talking,"says Jim Fassel, the Giants' coach at the time. "I opened the door for himto blame anybody he wanted for his problems, and he wouldn't do it. He took allthe responsibility on himself." The most painful trials were behindCollins, but there would be other hurdles.

In 2000 theGiants went 12--4 and advanced to the NFC title game, where Collins threw for381 yards and five touchdowns in a 41--0 romp over Minnesota. But in the SuperBowl he was intercepted four times by the voracious Baltimore Ravens defense,one of the best in recent NFL history. Yet that defeat proved revelatory."In a way, that Super Bowl game was liberating for me," says Collins."I threw four interceptions in the biggest game you can possibly play in. Iplayed like crap. And you know what? Eventually I was all right. I got past it.The sun came up. In a football sense I can't possibly screw up worse than that,and there's a certain freedom involved in that. If I can come back from that, Ican come back from anything."

The theory wouldbe tested. Three years later he finished a 4--12 season injured and inactive,and the Giants set their sights on Eli Manning in the 2004 draft. They wantedCollins to keep the quarterback position warm for Manning, but he declined andsigned with Oakland. Over the next two years the Raiders won only nine games,but on a very bad team Collins threw for more than 7,200 yards and 41touchdowns.

"We hadpretty good production on offense there," says wideout Jerry Porter, whocaught 129 passes from Collins in Oakland. "But I'll tell you what Kerrydid: He took all of the blame for our problems, justified or not. He never hidfrom any of it."

In the 2006off-season Collins, who was by then married (he and his wife, Brooke, have afour-year-old daughter), retreated to the cattle farm he'd bought in '03 andworked the stock on horseback. Football receded from his thoughts."Retirement was a possibility," says Collins. "I was burned outfrom those two years in Oakland." Collins didn't consider an offer until hesigned with Tennessee just before the final preseason game. Presumptive starterBilly Volek was at odds with Fisher, and Collins started the first three gamesbefore giving way to Young. "When it came down to it," says Collins,"I didn't want my career to end the way it did in Oakland."

COLLINS'SPERSONAL odyssey is inspirational, but it does not explain the return to gloryin his mid-30s. It's a challenge to pinpoint a single reason. Collins, who willbe a free agent again after the season, is playing at 228 pounds, almost 20below his weight in the Super Bowl. In 14 years there are few defensivewrinkles he hasn't seen. He embraces Fisher's low-risk approach. "Kerryunderstands that the odds of converting third-and-13 are not very good,"says Fisher. "So don't try to squeeze the ball into a tight window or takea big hit. Put it on the ground, punt and put together a drive the nexttime." The Titans are very good both in front of Collins (the offensiveline) and behind him (the running backs).

If his numbersthis season are unimpressive, Collins's leadership has been vital. "Itbecame a matter of owning the team," says Mawae, "and Kerry has donethat." Fisher suggested that the Titans might try to work Young back intothe lineup as the playoffs approach, but an injured thumb kept him out ofpractice last week, and he spent another Sunday watching from the sideline. Theteam belongs to the old man. The old man belongs to the moment.

"Whether it'sa touchdown pass, an interception or a Super Bowl, the last one is in thepast," says Collins. "And then you always have to prove yourself allover again. This game is about the ability to come back." Here a long,intended pause, letting the years roll silently by. And then, with a sweep ofhis arms that takes in the length and breadth of his past: "Fromwhatever."

"I threw four interceptions in the biggest gameyou can play in, and I got past it," says Collins. "There's a certainFREEDOM in that."



Don Banks analyzes the 2008 rookie class and re-picks the players in the firstround of the draft based on what we know now.




Photograph by Bob Rosato

THE RIGHT CALL Collins has proved an ideal fit for Tennessee's low-risk offense—and a firm leader for a playoff-bound club.



UP-DOWN GUY Collins has gone from glory to misery and back with the Panthers, Saints, Giants, Raiders and now Titans.



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