You couldn’t miss Kerry Collins and his No. 12 jersey on the practice field Thursday at Ericsson Stadium. He was the one who fell on his behind during a quarterback passing drill.
Today, Collins is the picture of the Carolina Panthers.
The franchise that was one step from the Super Bowl less than two years ago is on its back 0-4 after two developments: a 51-23 loss to Atlanta on Sunday; and Collins’ decision to quit his job as the No. 1 quarterback in a Wednesday meeting in which he told Coach Dom Capers that his “heart wasn’t into it.”
Asked if this was the low point of the franchise, Capers said Thursday: “I don’t know that I could dispute that.”
“We’ve been through an awful lot the first quarter of the season,” he added. “And I think you always measure the strength of people, by how they respond to adversity. I’ve been impressed with the way this team has always come back and bounced back. We’ve got fighters on this team.”
We’ll see how much fight they have Sunday, when the Panthers play at Dallas (3-2) with veteran backup Steve Beuerlein starting in Collins’ place.
Capers said he hasn’t decided if Collins, now the third-string quarterback, will travel with the team.
Collins, who did not speak with the media again Thursday, could be gone by then, though. The Panthers are trying to deal him before Thursday’s NFL trade deadline, and Capers said he might be released.
“We’re not going to rule out any option at this point in time,” the coach said.
The possibility of a trade might be the only reason Collins, 25, is still with the team. Because it has become clear very quickly his teammates have lost their respect for Collins, so much so that the team might be forced to release him if a deal can’t be made by the deadline.
Asked it Collins could lead the team again, cornerback Eric Davis said: “No, because he just said that he can’t. And if he says he can’t, he can’t. Period.
“At what point will it ever get to where he says ‘I can’t do it’ again? Will it happen next week, or a month, in the second quarter of the game that’s he playing in, on the first play of the drive? I don’t know.”
Linebacker Jeff Brady appeared disgusted.
“It was 51-whatever in the fourth quarter last week against Atlanta and I never came off the field,” he said. “If one of the coaches asked me if I wanted to come off the field, my answer would be no. I don’t want any of my other 10 teammates on defense thinking that I copped out on them. My thing is about respect of the field. That’s what the game really should be about.”
Besides, Brady said: “If I had made that comment, my wife would have shot me.”
Asked if Collins had lost the respect of this team, Brady said: “He’s lost mine.”
Beyond anger, the Panthers continue to be baffled by Collins’ decision. Even his friends so the team -- players such as Beuerlein and tight end Wesley Walls -- couldn’t explain Collins’ decision.
“I can’t make an opinion right now,” said Walls, one of several players who say they think Collins is capable of returning and leading the team again. “I haven’t had time to sit down with Kerry and may not have the time. He may not want to sit down and tell me why he decided to do this.”
With the media swarming the Panthers’ locker room Thursday, Davis laughed off the question.
“I’m not a shrink,” he said. “And I am not going to try to play one on television.”
Nor is Davis hiding the fact he lost respect for Collins last year when Collins uttered a racial slur during training camp. Although Collins apologized to teammates, the incident was not forgotten.
Asked if Collins had ever regained his respect, Davis said: “No. No. I’ll answer that for myself. No, he didn’t. And maybe my respect is not something he was after. I’m not going to stand here and be so smug to think my respect is something he really cared about.”
Beuerlein has no such baggage. He is a solid quarterback, and perhaps most importantly, he commands his teammates’ respect. But he is 33 and never has been viewed as a quarterback a franchise can build around for the future.
A permanent solution might be difficult to find, though. Although the 1999 draft will be filled with quality quarterbacks, the Panthers won’t have a shot at them.
Carolina doesn’t have a first-round selection, having sent it to Washington as compensation for signing defensive end Sean Gilbert last spring.
Beyond Beuerlein, the Panthers don’t have many quarterback options for the future unless they acquire a first-round draft pick or and up-and-comer.
“I really haven’t given it a lot of thought,” Capers said of the team’s long-term future at the position. “That’s kind of down the line. When you’re in the season, you don’t have a lot of free time to think about your options.”