Kerry Lead off the Field as Well as on

Kerry Collins had the room. In only a few moments and with just a few words, he delivered his message. Or maybe we should call it his warning.

"I told the guys [Thursday] night, the 2003 New York Giants' offense hasn't done anything," the veteran quarterback said during the team's first meeting of training camp. "We haven't done one thing. Everyone's sitting around telling us how good we are, how good we're going to be, but we haven't done anything yet."

These were strong words from Collins, who begins his fourth training camp as the starting quarterback as comfortable in his football uniform as he is in the tattered slip-on sandals he lives in off the field. Gone is the man once reluctant to speak his mind, replaced with the constantly evolving and maturing Collins who knows he's in charge.

"I look around at this team now and there are not too many guys that have been around longer than I have or are older than I am," said Collins, who turned 30 in December. "I feel like I've grown into that role. I'm more comfortable with myself and to open my mouth if something's on my mind. I'm one of the key leaders on this team."

Collins has made the Giants' decision to take that chance on him before the 1999 season look brilliant. He set a franchise record by throwing for 4,073 yards last season. He has been durable enough to start every game since moving up to No. 1 on the depth chart midway through the '99 season, he took the team to the Super Bowl in 2000, and he set the Giants on a scintillating run to the playoffs last year.

All that he did with his arm. Now, he also knows how to use his personality to make this offense his own. By trusting that his quiet but steely demeanor would eventually secure the loyalty of teammates, Collins owns the locker room as much as he did the meeting room Thursday night. He's earned it.

"When he got here we were all just hoping he could resurrect and come back to how he was early in his career," 11-year veteran Michael Strahan said. "We got a mature, responsible, rededicated guy and it shows in the way he plays and the way he handles himself off the field. ... Kerry is a great quarterback and there is only a handful of them in the league."

As each summer turns toward fall and football season begins anew, Collins finds himself more equipped to do his job.

"Last year I said, 'I've never felt this comfortable going into a camp,' and now I'm saying the same thing this year," Collins said. "I just don't worry about the things I used to worry about. That comes with age and the journey. This isn't that overwhelming to me anymore. It used to be, but it's not anymore and it makes it easier."

Collins, the fifth overall pick of the 1995 draft, made the Pro Bowl a year later in Carolina. The time from there to here, however, included an ugly split with the Panthers, a desperate stop in New Orleans, and the last-chance signing in New York. Five seasons later, veteran safety Shaun Williams thinks Collins is on his way back to Hawaii.

"I think he should be a Pro Bowl quarterback," Williams said. "I have a huge challenge in practice every day just to make sure Kerry doesn't make me look bad."

Coach Jim Fassel finds joy in watching Collins practice every day, seeing confidence exude where once there was tentativeness. With every pin-point pass, with every clean snap or graceful drop, with every aggressive step in the pocket, and with every let-it-fly bomb down the field, Collins bolsters his stature.

"I don't know what he can do better than last year," receiver Amani Toomer said. "He's the best I've seen him - the way he's throwing it and the decisions he's making. It's pretty scary to think about what can happen. If he gets protection and he's throwing the ball with his feet set, I think he's up there in the top one, two, three quarterbacks in the league. I don't think there's anybody that knows football that would dispute that."

The final caveat is in response to Collins' relatively low profile and utter lack of league-wide recognition. While other players tout his ability, they know it matters little to him.

"I don't think he cares," running back Tiki Barber said. "He cares about winning and getting his team, namely his offense, on his program. I wouldn't trade him for anyone."
Jul. 26,03