There's no quit in Kerry

Kerry Collins wouldn't even give up on Sunday's game, so don't expect him to give up on what's left of the Giants' season.

"It's my job to be out there," Collins said Monday, the day after his team's fourth consecutive loss erased any final, desperate thoughts of a playoff run. "It's my team regardless of how many times I get hit or sacked. That's where I belong. That's where I want to be."

But as Collins stood inside a subdued Giants' locker room, the 30-year-old quarterback sounded very much like a man who knows change is in the air. Collins can read between the lines of co-owner Wellington Mara's postgame reaction to thousands of fans leaving early Sunday, a message Mara said "tells me you've got to improve your product."

Collins empathizes with coach Jim Fassel's fruitless search for the antidote to this team's malaise and he knows the failure of that search is almost certainly going to result in Fassel's firing.

"Whatever happens in the future is going to happen. My focus right now is trying to win Sunday," Collins said.

Collins' current contract expires after the 2004 season, and with so much of his success tied to his bond with Fassel, he cannot predict what his future holds.

"I'll worry about that situation when it comes around," he said. "Obviously if a new guy comes in, [he] always brings a new set of players in. You never know how he feels about anyone already here. But that's out of my control. I'm not going worry about that. We've got four more games left and I'm going to try to finish as best I can."

That's what Collins wanted to do Sunday against Buffalo. Fassel was prepared to send in second-stringer Jesse Palmer late in the fourth quarter of the 24-7 defeat, just to save Collins from any further assault. Collins already had been sacked six times, pressured countless more, and hit on seemingly every pass he threw.

With the Giants trailing by so much and needing to score quickly, Collins was an easy target. An offensive line without its best player in Luke Petitgout and left with four first-year starters by game's end couldn't hold its ground. Coach Jim Fassel said tapes revealed that Collins was hit three different times in two seconds or less, an impossible task for any quarterback.

"Everybody says, 'What's wrong with Kerry Collins?' and 'What happened to Kerry Collins?' Kerry Collins has been getting the snot beat out of him, that's what's wrong with Kerry Collins," teammate Michael Strahan said. "Trust me, Kerry could have come out of the game when it was out of hand. I could have come out of the game. But you don't do that. It's easy to come out when things are going well, but when things aren't going well and you come out of the game, it looks like you quit."

Collins considers himself the leader of this offense, and that goes for prolific times and times of drought. He has no intention of giving way to Palmer, knowing that the message he sends out now is just as important as the one he broadcasts when the team is winning.

"That explains the character of Kerry Collins," said tight end Jeremy Shockey, who has missed the past five games with a knee injury. "Everybody wants to say bad things about him, but if they put themselves in his shoes and see how much pressure he's under, they could understand. He's a great competitor, fun to play with, and I really feel sorry for him right now. I want to be out there as bad as possible and try to get some pressure off him. I hadn't heard that he could have come out and didn't, but that's good. As a player, it's good to hear that coming from someone like him."

With four games remaining, Collins is girding himself for the inevitable "Fire Fassel'' chatter. It won't be easy for him to hear because of the special bond he has formed with the coach.

"It's hard not to think about it. There's a lot of talk about what could happen and what people are thinking, but whatever happens I think we can look back with a sense of pride and a sense of accomplishment," Collins said.

"I came here at a time when they needed me and I needed them. I needed a guy like Jim to really change my career around. That's going to make me play hard for him regardless of the situation, especially these last four games and any time after that if he's still here, which I hope he is, and I think he should be."