Kerry Collins was lounging on the couch in his Penn State apartment a few years back when the telephone ran with a surprise voice on the line: Troy Aikman.
Aikman, the star quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys, was calling to urge Collins to sign with agent Leigh Steinberg.
Collins was in awe. Tacked on the wall above his head was a poster of Aikman.
“Ok, this is pretty cool,” Collins remembered thinking.
What Aikman didn’t tell Collins then is that the path to glory for an NFL quarterback is littered with interceptioons and scrutiny.
Although he won’t turn 25 until Dec. 30, Collins has directed the Panthers offense for nearly three years. But after a sophomore season in which he took the team to the NFC Championship Game, Collins has struggled this year, raising the question of whether he’ll ever become the premier quarterback that team management envisioned when it made him the No. 5 pick in the 1995 NFL draft.
Today, the Panthers (7-7) play Green Bay (11-3) at 4 PM in Ericcson Stadium in a game the Panthers need to win to keep their slim playoff hopes alive. That Craolina is so close to being out of contention can be attributed to many factors, including an aging defense, soft special-teams play and a lack of the spirit the team showed in 1996.
But an undeniable problem has been Collins, who has thrown 18 interceptions, only 10 touchdown passes, and has a quarterback rating of 59.9, the lowest in the NFL among regular starters.
That assured quarterback who last season stood tall in the pocket and had a respectable QB rating of 79.4 has been replaced by a tentative one who doesn’t seem to stride into his throws anymore.
During the preseason, Collins suffered a broken jaw and offended black teammates with racial slurs he said were made in jest. During the regular season, Collins has been the target of boos by unforgiving fans.
In Collins’ 11 starts, the Panthers are 0-5 when he has thrown two interceptions in a game, and 6-0 when he hasn’t.
Some interceptions have come because Collins’ receivers ran wrong routes, some have come off tipped passes and some have been desperate throws at the end of halves and games.
But on many interceptions, the responsibilty has rested with Collins.
The Panthers, however, insist that whatever doubts might exist among fans aren’t shared by the club.
“Let me say this loud and clear,” said general manager Bill Polian. “If you look at [Packers quarterback] Brett Favre compared to Kerry Collins, and you look at some other quarterbacks who’ve come into this league and compare them to Kerry Collins, then you see how they compare.
“Has he [Collins] played as good as he did last year? No. He’ll be the first to tell you that.
“Does he have two plates in his jaw. Yes.
“Did he have a concussion against the New Orleans Saints Nov. 30? Yes.
“Quarterbacks don’t mature in a year-and-a-half or two years. If you’re looking for a finished product at quarterback in three years, you’re not going to get it.”
The Panthers, who in 1995 signed Collins to a six-year, $21.6 million deal, could let him become a restricted free agent this season, but they plan to “buy back” three more years bonus of $6 million, but the Panthers are convinced Collins is worth it.
After all, as Polian pointed out, other young quarterbacks have struggled early in their careers.
The New England Patriots’ Drew Bledsoe threw 53 touchdown passes and was intercepted 58 times through his first three seasons. The Denver Broncos’ John Elway had 47 TD passes and 52 interceptions, and Aikman had 31 TD passes and 46 picks.
Even Favre threw 24 interceptions in his third season, in 1993, and tested the patience of Packers coach Mike Holmgren.
“His third year, we sat down and said, “This part of your game has got to change,” Holmgren said. “We had Mark Brunell here and Ty Detmer, and I told Brett, ‘If it gets too wild in the game, I’m going to put Mark in.”
Since 1994, Favre has thrown 140 touchdown passes and 45 interceptions.
When asked about Collins, Favre said: “All I can say to Kerry is keep trying to make plays. If the interceptions come, so be it.”
One NFL general manager questions Collins’ potential to be a star.
“I don’t think he’s in the Elway, Marino, Aikman, Young class,” said the executive, who requested anonymity. “But he’ll be a cut below and will be good enough to win a Super Bowl with.”
The executive cited Collins’ jaw injury and the quarterback’s supporting cast as reasons Collins has been tentative this season.
Carolina has shuffled running backs and wide receivers all season.
“They didn’t get any help from Ernie Mills, Muhsin [Muhammad] got hurt, and they lost [Willie] Green [to free agency], which has been a bigger loss than people thought,” the executive said.
“If you look at the 49ers game [at San Francisco last season], he [Collins] played as well as you can expect a quarterback to play. But the changes from year to year with free agency affect the production and continuity of a quarterback.”
Collins had a strong game Monday night in a 23-13 win over Dallas, but his inexperience has showed in some of Carolina’s other big games. For example, he threw three interceptions in a 34-21 home loss to San Francisco as he misread the 49ers’ secondary.
“When you’re playing the San Francisco 49ers, you know that safety Merton Hanks is a guy who goes where you look,” Panthers reserve quarterback Steve Beuerlein said. “And that’s something that hurt Kerry in that first game.”
Collins once said this year that his confidence had ebbed. Now, he realizes the climb to success isn’t easy.
“There’s a certain progression you have to go through,” said COllins, pointing out that Aikman and Elway struggled early.
“Last year was an added bonus. I can remember only one other guy [Miami’s Dan Marino] who had success that early in his career. I’m ahead of schedule, as far as that goes.
“There’s going to be a bump in the road. ... I’m still learning, and it would be unrealistic to go out there and think I was going to have a Pro Bowl year after year up until year four, five, or six.”
A second NFL general manager said that although his organization didn’t rate Collins “well out of college,” people sometimes get down on a quarterback too early, and third-season struggles don’t necessarily portend a lack of success down the road.
Interception havent’ been the only source of frustration for Collins this season -- he has grown tired of scrutiny he has endured in Charlotte, both on and off the field.
When Collins goes out, fans watch and whisper. Panthers tight end Wesley Walls said Collins can’t enjoy himself around town because of “the fear that Kerry has to carry with him all the time.”
“When I’m relaxed, I’m relaxed,” Walls said. “When Kerry’s relaxed, he’s got to worry about what people are going to write and say about him.
“Every time someone sees him doing something, they assume the worst. I’ve been with him half of the times, and I known he’s not doing that. I know what kind of guuy he is.
“Everything’s exaggerated to a point where it’s not true.”
Collins’ frustrations about fans and media scrutiny reached a peeak in October.
Asked then how he was doing, Collins replied: “Well, in the past coiple of months I’ve been called a drunk and a racist. I’ve been benced and booed. Other that that, I’m doing fine.”
Collins told Sports Illustrated that trying to duplicate his success of last season, “may be too much to ask any 24-year-old to handle.”
“I mean, come on, I’m a well-meaning, good-intentioned person,” he told the magazine. “I am not a racist. I do not have a drinking probelm. But how do you think it feels to ... know that a lot of people believe you are a racist or a drinker? One day you get tagged with labels, and you want to scream, ‘What happened?’”
Collins often vents with Beuerlein when they shoot pool or play golf.
“It’s tough,” Collins said of the scruntiny. “I’m a private person, as it goes. It’s difficult person, as it goes. It’s difficult for me to go out in a crowd and do the things I want comfortably enough where I can go out and not have to worry about those things. It happened to me at a very young age, and it hasn’t been an easy thing to deal with.”
“I think I’ve accepted it. It’s not an easy thing to deal with, once you’ve accpeted it. Maybe I haven’t accepted it all the way. I’ve rebelled against it in a certain way. It’s not a normal thing for a 24-year-old to go through, especially when you have a lot of friends who don’t have a lot of friends who don’t have to deal with those things.”
Collins, however, has the upside of what he called “tradeoffs” -- money, cars and the securtiy that his contract provides.
But there are times he seems to miss him more carefree days at Penn State. Even Aikman, watching Collins’ career from afar now that Collins also is with Steinberg, has sensed that this season has been difficult for Collins, on and off the field.
Beuerlein went to see Aikman in the Dallas locker room before Monday night’s game. Aikman soon asked about Collins.
“It’s been a real tough year,” Beuerlein said.
“I’ve been through all that,” Aikman replied.
“I know. You’ve been through all of it and then some,” Beuerlein said.
As Beuerlein said later, “Troy’s still going through it. He’s getting booed now.
“That’s something Kerry is learning. And that’s what we talk about. It’s not going to end. ... They [fans] jump on your side for two years, three years, and then once things start getting rough again, it’s going to be back to the same old stuff.
“The sooner you can accept that and deal with it and block out the stuff people write and perople say, the better off you’re going to be. The bottom line is: How do people in this room and in this organization feel about you, and how you do you perform on Sundays?”
This season, Sundays have been difficult for Collins. Next season, well, is anyone’s guess.
Dec. 14, 97