Collins expects more firepower

For poignant words, they came quickly from Kerry Collins: "If I had started my career in New York, I'd probably be dead by now."

The Giants' quarterback was referring to his well-chronicled past and his former lifestyle that got him into trouble in sleepy Charlotte, N.C. "But I really don't like to get into 'What ifs?'" he quickly added. "This is my time to be here."

And, he thinks, it's a great time to be quarterbacking the Giants. He's never looked around the huddle and seen as many offensive threats as he does now. Rookie tight end Jeremy Shockey alone had Collins excited entering Thursday night's regular-season opener against San Francisco at Giants Stadium.

The veteran quarterback also finds himself surrounded in that huddle by old friends Amani Toomer, Ike Hilliard, and Tiki Barber, plus the apparently healthy again Sean Bennett and speedy wideouts Ron Dixon and Jonathan Carter. They will be joined by wide receivers Tim Carter and Daryl Jones, once the two rookies are healthy.

That's why it won't be all Shockey all the time, according to Collins. "We'll be selective with how we use him," Collins promises, "because we do have other weapons. We do have some guys on the outside that can play. These are the types of things that kind of get worked out through the course of a few games, a half-season, a season, whatever.

"A big part of a good offense is everyone knowing his role. We are still trying to figure that out a little bit. We know what Amani's role is. We know what Ike's is. We don't know what Jeremy's is yet. But certainly that is a positive thing. So even though we don't have it worked out right now, we eventually will have it worked out and it should be a positive thing for us."

Collins says the Giants should be able to score more points this season than they did a year ago, and even more than they did in 2000 when they reached the Super Bowl. And scoring points could be all important to the Giants since the always dependable, sometimes dominating defense may not be either in 2002.

The unit has lost its coordinator, John Fox, and two leaders in Jessie Armstead and Sam Garnes. Who knows about Jason Sehorn and Kenny Holmes? And depth - it would be about up to a toad's kneecap, if toads have kneecaps.

"We have been lucky on offense because we have kept our playmakers and actually added to them," says Barber. "But on defense we have lost some guys. That's why it is imperative we do a better job on offense.

"We do have a lot of potential, but potential is a dirty word if it goes unrealized. That's when things can get very negative, and you have one of those 'shoulda, coulda, woulda' kinds of seasons."

There is one huge caveat in this plan for the Giants to live by their offense. When Collins looks straight ahead in the huddle to where the linemen are waiting for his call, he sees a bunch of runny-nosed youngsters without a whole lot of pelts hanging from their belts. It's a lunch box crew all right, but their lunch boxes are emblazoned on the sides with Spiderman and Winnie the Pooh.

Without center Dusty Zeigler, as they were Thursday night, the Giants have just one lineman with real experience, left tackle Luke Petitgout. And he's playing his third position in four years. Jason Whittle and Mike Rosenthal have seen limited playing time, and Chris Bober and Rich Seubert none at all.

The spin here is that the athleticism of the newcomers will at least partially make up for the lack of experience. "We ran a play in practice the other day," says Barber, "where [left guard] Seubert pulled and led me through a hole. I kept running 40 yards down the field, and he was still with me. With the guys we had in the past like Glenn Parker, they would make their blocks and that would be it."

Collins says he's sick and tired of answering questions about the line. But he also knows the line holds the key to the kind of success the Giants' offense hopes to have and needs to have, particularly if the defense is not up to past standards. And without their protection, he will be unable to take the next step he feels he's ready to take, that step into the elite class of NFL quarterbacks.

"I feel the experience that I have gotten playing in this league, my maturity as a person, it has all come together," Collins says. "I have a better grasp on this game and my role in this game than I ever have. I know what it takes to be a good quarterback. And I know what it takes for us to be a good football team. And that is half the battle, as far as I am concerned."