It's probably too late for Kerry Collins. Nothing he does on a football field will swing the New York spotlight away from young Mr. Pennington. Collins is still the quarterback who worries his fans more than he does the other team.
So yesterday, when the Giants were 39-38 losers to San Francisco, the most painful kind of losers, this becomes Collins' epitaph: It wasn't his fault.
Collins' best season is over. He put up tremendous numbers, and he added to those totals yesterday. He threw for 342 yards, completing 29 of 43 passes. One interception, a misdemeanor, and four touchdown passes, three to Amani Toomer. But those four, and one other, weren't enough.
Collins led the offense to a 24-point lead. There were under five minutes left in the third quarter. It should have been easy. And just when it seemed Collins would end the day with another strong game to his credit, easy and strong became meaningless words.
He came into this game on a roll. The Giants had won their last four to reach these playoffs and Collins was at his best. He was voted offensive player of the month. There, that makes it official. But that was last month, a million yards ago.
He was able to say, mid-week, "I'm starting to figure out what it takes to be good week in and week out and be consistent." He'd finally gotten to that point, he said, where his Sunday performances were "past that point where it's so Jekyll and Hyde."
Yesterday, early, this was what we found out about him: He isn't one of those players who needs to hit his first jump shot, or make good contact on his first at-bat. The 49ers opened the scoring, one play after a Collins pass was intercepted. Again, and for all the good it does, it wasn't his fault.
The Giants had started beautifully. Collins completed his first four passes, and Tiki Barber added yards the four times he carried the ball. The Giants were at the San Francisco 33, eating up the field, when Collins' next pass went to Ron Dayne. And boinked off Dayne's hand. The ball went high in the air and when it came down, after being batted volley-ball style, the 49ers were in control. They covered the next 76 yards on one play.
You couldn't blame Collins, but you had to wonder how the quarterback might react. The truth is, he hasn't done anything to complain about lately. If that doesn't sound like much of a compliment, it's only because there's something about Collins that doesn't inspire complete confidence.
Until yesterday, because nobody cares how good you are against St. Louis in September, Collins is recalled for three games, two in the 2000 postseason - his perfect day in the 41-0 romp over Minnesota; his meltdown in the Super Bowl. The third game came two weeks ago at Indianapolis. The Giants had to win and Collins was the reason they did. And he made the plays he had to make against the Eagles.
Yesterday, for most of three quarters, he was making the plays again. Down 7-0, near the end of the first quarter, Dr. Jekyll walked into the operating room. Collins' 18-yarder to Toomer put the Giants at the S.F. 18. On third-and-9, he connected with Ron Dixon for a first down. The next play, Collins, who sometimes makes the wrong decisions in traffic, saw Toomer in the right corner of the end zone. And because there were too many red jerseys around Toomer, he threw the ball away. One play later, Toomer was on the other side. No red jerseys this time, and the game was tied.
The second quarter, the 49ers couldn't handle the Giants offense. They went 61 yards for a score - Collins to Shockey - that gave them their first lead. The next touchdown came after the 49ers mishandled a punt. When that happens, you try to make them pay for it in a hurry. And that's just what Collins did with his 8-yard pass to Toomer.
It would only get better. That 14-point lead would grow to 38-14. It was starting to look too easy. But it wasn't long before easy was the last thing you were thinking.
The last Giants' possession of the third quarter was the first time they went three-and-out. They did it again at the start of the fourth. But Collins was better the next time. And the time after that.
He got them into field goal range both times. But the first field goal kick was wide left. And the second attempt didn't include the kick. Kerry Collins was watching from the sideline, where it couldn't be his fault.