Collins Firmly Strides Into a Starting Role Without Any Misstep

It happens frequently in the N.F.L. The starting quarterback is hurt, and the backup has to take that nervous jog to the huddle and bark instructions, trying to do away with his teammates' anxiety over the injured regular and their trepidation over the new guy.

The backup quarterback was not playing for a reason, right?

Last Sunday night, Oakland Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon took a violent head-on hit late in the first quarter against Tampa Bay, and Kerry Collins was tapped to replace him on the Raiders' next possession.

Collins, who helped lead the Giants to the Super Bowl four seasons ago, was calm and cool. And so were his teammates. Some even figured Collins should have been starting in the first place. With the score tied at 3-3, Collins led Oakland to a field goal on his first drive and was sharp (16 of 27 passing for 228 yards) in the Raiders' 30-20 victory.

"We always knew we had two 4,000-yard type passers on our team," defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "It was just Kerry's turn."

His turn got a lot longer Monday, when word came that Gannon had fractured a vertebra in his neck and would be out at least eight weeks.

Gannon, 38, took a pay cut before this season to keep his job, with the understanding that Collins would probably be the starter next season. Then is now, and Collins, 31, has the experience and the arm that can take the Raiders (2-1) into the playoffs.

"He's been to the Super Bowl," guard Frank Middleton said. "He's seen every defense. He makes everybody's job easier, coming in with his experience. The coaches aren't stressing like they were last year."

Gannon missed the final nine games last season because of a shoulder injury, which, coupled with the backup Marques Tuiasosopo's subsequent knee injury, helped clear the way for Coach Bill Callahan's firing.

After Norv Turner was hired, Al Davis, the Raiders' principal owner, saw the chance to increase his team's depth when the Giants acquired the No. 1 overall draft pick, Eli Manning, and cut Collins. Oakland signed Collins in May, and Turner said the move began to pay off Sunday night. "And it's going to pay off long term," Turner said.

Collins deferred to Gannon from the outset and did not let a quarterback controversy start.

"I made a conscious effort publicly to say, hey, that's not the deal," Collins said. "I think that made it smooth for everybody. If there was anybody who was going to be disruptive, it was not going to be me."

He faltered with the New Orleans Saints, but his career was resurrected with the Giants. His first start for Oakland comes Sunday against Capers, the Houston Texans' coach.

"I give him credit," Capers said in a conference call. "Boy, he bounced back. He showed what he's made of. He picked himself up and he's been going strong ever since. I'm happy for Kerry. I admire him for what he's been able to do."

Capers said he thought Collins was the perfect fit for the Raiders' offense, as he likes to throw downfield.

"He's got a strong arm," Capers said. "He can throw the ball down the field. He makes good decisions. I think it's unfortunate that Rich Gannon got hurt, but that's one of the great things when you've got a guy backing up like Kerry Collins. He stepped in, and they really didn't miss a beat."

Collins even cracked some jokes in the huddle last Sunday, telling Middleton after an incompletion that he had so much time in the pocket that he could have set a dinner table.

"He's cool," Middleton said. "He keeps the game fun. He's not one of those guys that panics when he makes a bad throw."

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