Kerry Collins no longer is an affable young quarterback with a cannon arm and limitless future. He has been through too much in his short career. He has learned.
Those who know Collins say he is a different person as he enters his fourth and possible final season with the Carolina Panthers, who open their exhibition schedule against Jacksonville tonight at Ericsson Stadium.
Collins’ ability as a quarterback is in question, his future is unknown, and his once-open demeanor is closed to all but those close to him.
Hardened? Perhaps. But Collins, 25, appears to be more cautious.
“He almost has to shelter himself a little bit because you’ve got your bandwagon people out there that are going to jump on his back and then they’re going to hop off and stab him,” said teammate and friend Matt Campbell. “He’s got to be wary.”
Wary of everything. Of the fans at Ericsson Stadium who booed him. Of the media who humbled or angered him with reports of his drinking habits. Of critics who surfaced during a 1997 season that began with a controversy over a racial slur he uttered and ended with the worst quarterback rating in the NFL. Of a team that chose not to pay him a $6 million bonus in the offseason, instead offering a one-year contract for $1.153 million and the chance to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.
“There’s always something to prove,” Collins said. “Obviously, coming from a year like last year, is there a little personal thing? Maybe. You know what I mean? You think about those kinds of things. You want to prove to people you can play. But at the same time, the only people I’m worried about proving I can play is these guys in this locker room.
“I made mistakes; I’ll be the first one to tell you. But you know what? I think a lot of people gave me their best shot last year, but I’m still standing here. I think you go through something like last year, it makes you strong as a person.”
A year ago at this time, Collins was a franchise untouchable. He had led the Panthers to the NFC Championship Game in just his second season in the league. He went to the Pro Bowl. And during training camp, there was talk that the ‘97 Panthers would challenge for the Super Bowl with Collins leading the way.
But the good vibes stopped there. The racial slur, “nigga” angered black teammates, and although Collins apologized the next day -- saying the remark was made in jest -- the Panthers became divided.
Three days later, Collins suffered a broken jaw during an exhibition loss to Denver. He was rushed into the lineup in the third game of the regular season, but he wasn’t the same.
“It wasn’t pleasant,” Collins said. “It wasn’t a lot of fun.
“I don’t think it was so much about confidence. It’s not like I was afraid to take a hit or I’m afraid of what’s going on. I lost 15 pounds. I didn’t really feel the same as what I’ve always been, a big presence in the pocket. It made me feel a little bit differently about myself when I was out there.”
A season that began with Super Bowl hopes ended with a 7-9 record. Collins threw a league-high 21 interceptions and produced a league-low 55.7 quarterback rating. Then came talk the Panthers would consider trading Collins, and the decision by the organization not to pay the $6 million bonus.
Collins wanted to get away, so he packed a knapsack and took off for Europe. He spent eight weeks there, riding trains from country to country and staying in hostels instead of a luxury accommodations a millionaire can afford.
Somewhere along the line, something changed.
“I saw a difference in Kerry when he came back from Europe,” tight end Wesley Walls said. “He’s a determined football player. He has always had a great attitude. He’s just had some setbacks. He’s grown as a person, he’s more mature.”
The difference was apparent to many of Collins’ teammates.
“He was so much more relaxed,” Campbell said. “Kerry’s a young guy. He needs to relax. I think he might have got a little bit stressed out, a little bit almost overwhelmed.”
Whatever happened in Europe, Collins’ approach to football seemed different, too.
“I do know that his attitude this year has been very businesslike, very serious,” teammate Steve Beuerlein said.
The Panthers take that as a sign of maturity.
“Kerry’s been through a lot of good, a lot of tough times, and you know, I think he’s taking a mature approach to preparation,” Coach Dom Capers said. “I think he knows a lot more about what it takes to be a good NFL quarterback now.”
Collins has been diligent in his preparation for this season. He has studied the Panthers’ new, passing-oriented offense for months, and is working more on fundamentals -- footwork, improving his release on the ball, and anything else the team wants.
“This is quicker offense,” Collins said. “I think I’ve shown I’m a good enough athlete to do that. It is only training camp, definitely. But I think I’m moving as well as I ever have. I think my release is as quick as it ever has been. I think so far I’ve handled it well, but obviously, I would like to see what happens in a game.”
If there are lingering problems between Collins and his teammates, they aren’t apparent.
Beuerlein believes Collins’ rough season is a forgotten issue.
“I really don’t think anybody in that locker room thinks about it,” the backup quarterback said. “We’re professionals. We understand last year was a very disappointing year. A lot of bad things happened, but it’s done. All we can focus on is this year.”
So far, Collins has been a model citizen on the field.
“I’m out there to play football,” he said. “There’s a lot of guys out here that are counting on me. I’m still under contract for one more year. I’m getting paid to play football, so I’m going to be professional about it.”
His work ethic has impressed Capers.
“It’s a step-by-step process,” he said. “He’s throwing the ball the best I’ve seen him throw.
“As with a lot of young quarterbacks, he’s got three years in the league as a starter, and you learn from your experience both good and bad and you kind of store it away. I think he’s excited. I see him showing some leadership out there in the huddle. I see some fire in those eyes.”
But off the field, Collins hasn’t given up the nightlife.
“I won’t live in a bubble,” he told Sports Illustrated. “I’m 25. I’m single. I like to go out, and I will go out.”
Word has it, however, that Collins is keeping a lower profile around Spartanburg.
In the meantime, he has a positive attitude. Of course, the season hasn’t even begun yet.
“I know people are going to be watching,” Collins said. “I don’t look at last year as, you know, something that was a complete loss. There were a lot of good things. I played well at times, I played well on the road. I did some good things last year after having a broken jaw.
“People can say what they want and everything. But I know what I have to do. I’m just going to play my game and do what I can do, and work as hard as I can and whatever happens after that, happens. After that, I can live with myself."