With just a few words, Jim Fassel landed a body blow right to Kerry Collins' soul.
"Sometimes in life," Fassel confided in his quarterback, "people walk into your life that make a difference. You needed me and I needed you. We came together at the right time."
Collins, recalling the moment that occurred shortly after the Giants lost in the 2000 Super Bowl, still shakes his head at the memory. "What a nice thing for someone to say, what an endearing thing," Collins said. "I remember thinking he hit it right on the head."
Fassel and Collins. Collins and Fassel. One coach searching for a quarterback who could hold his offense together; one quarterback searching for a coach who could help him put things back together. When their paths intersected in 1999, their fates and the fate of the Giants grew intertwined. They would save each other, coach and quarterback, building a relationship so strong that as the 2003 season begins this afternoon with the Giants facing the Rams, Collins stands among the league's best throwers and Fassel is running a prolific offensive team poised for a deep playoff run.
"I think it's a little bit unusual because personalities sometimes get in the way when you're talking about coach and quarterback, but Jim and I have just gotten better and better," Collins said. "We're married. Maybe not as much as I think, but I feel that way."
Collins is not alone. Around the Giants complex, there is a shared view that Collins and Fassel appreciate what each has done for the other.
"In a sense they did need each other. Certainly the missing piece for our football team was a good quarterback," team president John Mara said. "Their personalities match well. They understand each other."
Collins arrived in New York with enough personal baggage to travel the world, enduring ugly splits with Carolina and New Orleans despite having been the Panthers' first-round pick in the 1995 draft. He'd been to the Pro Bowl as an NFL sophomore, but by 1999 his career was a mess.
The Giants were in a similar mess with their quarterback position. Fassel arrived in 1997 with a mandate to fix a moribund offense and work the magic he had done as an assistant coach with the likes of John Elway, Phil Simms, Jeff Hostetler, and Boomer Esiason. But his string of quarterbacks as the Giants' head coach - Dave Brown, Danny Kannell, and Kent Graham - just didn't have enough talent. When he saw Collins, he saw the arm that could deliver the goods.
"We were searching for a quarterback for so long and Kerry sort of magically appeared," Mara said.
The Giants believed they had met a man who was searching for direction. Collins was eager to move past his problems with alcohol and erratic behavior.
"The biggest thing was his personal life,'' Fassel said. "He had to make those changes and not go back there. He did that and I'm very proud of him."
Added Mara, "The thing that attracted us in addition to his talent was that he was looking for help at that time. Every professional in that area will tell you if a person wants help, you have a chance."
Collins found a coach who could fix his fundamentals - "Mechanically I was all messed up" - and one who knew how to tailor an offense to his strengths. Protect the pocket, simplify the options, and provide good targets. Last year, Collins threw for a franchise-best 4,073 yards; in 2001 he threw for 3,764; in 2000 he went to the Super Bowl.
"From a football standpoint I think I needed someone to steer me in the right direction," Collins said. "I always knew I had the ability and I'm talking about the whole thing, not just throwing the ball, but life, leadership, everything. What I thought about was, 'I have to open myself up to learn.' You know what I mean? You're young and you think you know everything. You don't. It was about me realizing that what I'm doing now isn't what I need to be doing."
With Collins, Fassel could reach new offensive heights. He already had running back Tiki Barber and receivers Amani Toomer and Ike Hilliard. Those four staged the 2000 Super Bowl run, and after a disappointing 2001 season, Fassel was able to add tight end Jeremy Shockey. But under the constraints and confusion of coordinator Sean Payton's offense a year ago, that talented quintet was averaging only a touchdown a game. Fassel was sick. He grabbed the reins of the offense again, calling plays to the tune of 26.9 points a game over the final 10 games and 30.8 points a game over the final six.
"I only sit and watch something so long and then I've had it and I attack another course. If I don't like something, I go after it," Fassel said. "As long as I am ultimately in charge, then I am going to grab control. That's my nature."
The players, wary at first, were unanimously impressed by season's end.
"He brought the game back to the locker room," Toomer said. "The game is about matchups, one guy beating another guy. It's not about all these different moves. You're not trying to beat the whole defense every play, you're trying to beat one guy. It reminds you of when you were little, playing flag football, and there was one guy and if you beat that one guy, you kept going. That's how it is. If you show you're dominating a player and having a good day, you're probably going to get the ball a lot."
Toomer's words are like music to Fassel. The coach demands his players take ownership of their jobs, just as he did with his playoff guarantee in 2000 or by commandeering play-calling a year ago.
"That took a lot of courage," Toomer said. "In that situation you can do one of two things: You can say, 'Well, I'm going to put the blame on somebody else and hope to hold on to what I've got,' or you can say, 'This is going on and I've got to get more involved because I know deep down I can fix everything.' That's a confidence you need in a coach. His confidence spills over onto the rest of the team."
Fassel makes sure Collins has it first. The quarterback is a valuable contributor to the play-calling approach and his is the only voice that resonates in the huddle. The two talk these days as man-to-man, already evolved past the paternal approach Fassel often used in their early days. Collins, now 30, married, and an expectant first-time father, wants to maintain his working relationship with Fassel "as long as we can." From where he has been, this is nirvana.
"Don't ever underestimate how good of a coach Jim Fassel is compared to some of the coaches in this league," Collins said. "This is my fifth year and I can't tell you how many times his name's been on the chopping block. He always seems to come back and if you want to look at the true mark of a good coach, they come back."
Good quarterbacks come back, too. And sometimes, the coach and the quarterback find their way together.