QB is at a crossroad, with coaches, draft, contract on the table

Uncertainties have crept into Kerry Collins' life, probably for the first time since ascending to the Giants' starting quarterback job midway through the 1999 season. The just-completed season of incredible underachievement by a team some had headed for the Super Bowl has created several areas of doubt for its offensive leader.

There is that overriding question of who will coach this team next season and the kind of relationship Collins might forge with him. Then there is the quarterback's contract, scheduled to pay him $7 million next season in its final year, but certain to be adjusted to soften the salary-cap hit. Finally there's the talk the Giants could select a quarterback for the future with the fourth pick in the April draft.

"Hey, I'm not washed up yet," Collins protested Monday, the eve of his 31st birthday. "I've still got a lot of good football ahead of me. I'm confident in my play."

There is little doubt he'll get that opportunity, whether Tom Coughlin or Romeo Crennel or Charlie Weis or Lovie Smith or Nick Saban is his next coach. However, there would be no doubt if Jim Fassel was coming back for an eighth season.

"I'll certainly keep abreast of what's going on," said Collins of the coaching search, "but I'm not going to have any control over it."

Still he may root for one or two of the candidates, based on his knowledge of them. Coughlin and Collins sort of grew up together NFL-style, the former as coach of the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars, the latter as quarterback of the expansion Carolina Panthers.

"He's a proven winner," Collins said. "I know he's a disciplinarian, but I've been involved in a lot of disciplined programs during my life."

He also knows Coughlin's quarterback in Jacksonville was Mark Brunell, and becoming a left-handed scrambler is something Collins just can't do. He also is aware Brunell, relegated to third string this season by the Jaguars, will be available on the trade market this off-season.

Collins has watched Weis' offense in New England, and has been impressed by the different formations the Patriots employ.

"They use a lot of empty [backfield] stuff," he added. "And I like the way [Tom] Brady has handled it. I think I can fit into that system."

He doesn't know Crennel, but does know his defense first-hand. "They are very well coached, very sound, never out of position," he said, adding that his main concern if a defensive coach like Crennel or Smith gets the job is who becomes his offensive coordinator.

"I would think so," Collins replied when asked if the new coach will come in with some preconceived opinions of him as the incumbent quarterback. "I've been around; it's not like I'm some second- or third-year guy."

Next year will be Collins' 10th in the NFL, and the sixth and final year of his original deal signed in 1999 and extended prior to the 2002 season. The Giants will look to convert much of that $7 million in base salary into a signing bonus that cap-wise can be spread over the length of the extension. By doing so, even with just a three-year package, they can shave some $4 million off their cap for 2004.

Collins said his agent, David Dunn, has had preliminary talks with general manager Ernie Accorsi about extending Collins' deal. He knows he's not coming off his best season for contract purposes - just 13 touchdown passes compared to 16 interceptions - but hopes the Giants will look at the overall picture he's painted before determining his value.

"I hope they get something done in the next couple of months," said Collins, who without an extension would become a free agent after next season. "I want to stay here, and I don't want to be in this same situation in another year or two even though I know there is more football behind me than in front of me."

Which brings up the possibility of the Giants drafting an eventual replacement. Two quarterbacks, Mississippi's Eli Manning and Miami of Ohio's Ben Roethlisberger, appear worthy of top-5 selection come April. There has been talk the Giants might be interested in either, although the three teams picking ahead of them - San Diego, Oakland, and Arizona - all could use quarterback help.

"Yeah, sure, I don't need another one," Collins replied when asked if selecting a first-round quarterback indeed was silly. "Look, they haven't drafted a quarterback high around here in quite a while, and a lot is going to be based on how and if my contract negotiations go. But by no means am I ready to give up my job."

Not surprisingly Collins would prefer to see that first-round pick spent on a top offensive tackle.

"No pick is too high to spend on one of them," he said.

And while he'll no longer have a say, Fassel apparently agrees in the quarterback's assessment. "Kerry can be a premier quarterback when he's protected," he said. "That's what he needs - he needs to be protected."

It all adds up to this off-season of uncertainty for Collins, who a year ago appeared as set as almost any quarterback in the league.

"This situation, certainly I hadn't anticipated it this quickly," he said of the major changes that will hit the Giants' locker room. "But it's something we all have to deal with. About the only thing constant in the NFL is change. In the short term you just go on idle, let it all shake out, see what happens - and you go from there."

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