In Kerry's hands, this season could be super

One month before the Giants open the season against the Rams, the matchups of Kerry Collins vs. Kurt Warner and the Giants offense vs. the Rams offense are no longer one-sided.

Collins and the Giants have caught up.

Even though Warner is having an excellent camp, you wonder if his numerous hand injuries over the last two years will prevent the St. Louis offense from ever again being what it was in the Super Bowl years - one of the most prolific in NFL history.

The Giants' season is in Collins' hands. If he continues to progress and doesn't take a step back, the offense could take the Giants deep into the playoffs. Collins has more than enough weapons: Tiki Barber, Amani Toomer, Jeremy Shockey and Ike Hilliard. The Rams counter with Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt. But they don't have their own Shockey.

And with his suddenly explosive supporting cast, Collins may be on the verge of a 28TD-12 INT breakout season, which would push him near the upper echelon of quarterbacks.

"I've never been one to listen a whole lot about what other people say, so I don't compare myself that much," Collins said yesterday. "You look around and you see guys at the top of the game. I really don't feel like I'm that far behind."

For Collins, who never talks about himself in superlatives, that was about all he would acknowledge about becoming one of the better quarterbacks in the league.

He lists his top tier as Brett Favre, Warner, Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick. "I would think I'm somewhere up there," he said. "I don't know if I'm quite at the top, but heading up towards the top."

Collins was a reclamation project when he showed up at his first Giants training camp four years ago. His history suggested he wasn't worth the effort.

The Giants were so desperate after years of Dave Brown, Danny Kanell and Kent Graham in the post-Phil Simms era, they risked a $4 million signing bonus that Collins could get his professional and personal life straightened out. He has turned it into a wise investment.

He took over for Graham during the '99 season and has started 54 straight games. Last season he set team records for passing yards (4,073) and completions (335). He has already helped the Giants get to one Super Bowl, although it was the defense that was responsible."I think he's one of those guys like Rich Gannon who is going to have a better career after he's 30 than before," Giants GM Ernie Accorsi said. Collins will be 31 in December.

For the first time in what seems like forever, the Giants offense goes into the season better than the Giants defense. And the transformation came in the middle of last season after Jim Fassel took over the play-calling from Sean Payton. In the first seven games, the Giants scored seven offensive TDs. In the final nine, with Fassel calling plays, they scored 26. And that was without Hilliard, who was lost for the season in the seventh game.

"With the talent level I have around me, I expect to play well," Collins said. "If I don't, it won't be because I didn't have the supporting cast, I know that."

When the offense got rolling last season, Collins got all his playmakers involved. This season, he must take pressure off the Giants defense, which was exposed in the 49ers playoff loss when it couldn't hold a 38-14 lead.

The opener against the Rams will say a lot about how far the offense can take the Giants this season. It will not be a 13-10 game. "Hopefully, when we reach that game, we'll be playing well," Collins said. "We know it's a big challenge for us and I'm sure they are going to come in here with all their guns blazing. So, it's going to be a big test."

When Collins looks around the huddle, he is surrounded by playmakers who can get into the end zone. "I would have to say I'm one of the most fortunate quarterbacks in the league," he said.

And for the first time since Simms, he gives the Giants a quarterback who can match up against anybody.
August 6, 2003