Kerry Collins couldn't shake the bad stories. They followed him to New Orleans, where the racial jokes and the loud drinking and the interceptions were woven into a bigger story of a fun-loving quarterback staggering out of professional football.
Unknown to Collins, however, New York Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi and his coach, Jim Fassel, had spent long hours researching Collins in the film room and on the phones. They watched him perform. And they dug deeply into his past, asking personal questions and wondering whether Collins was meant for the Giants, an organization steeped in conservatism.
And then Accorsi made the deal of his career. ''We had won a division with Danny Kanell,'' Accorsi said. ''But we really didn't think he was the guy to take us to the next level.''
They gave Collins a $16.9 million contract, $4.8 million of the money up front. Miami was also interested. But as agent Leigh Steinberg put it: ''Accorsi was terrific, the epitome of acceptance. He held both arms out wide.''
At 6-5, and with a powerful arm that could throw the 18-yard sideliners that Kanell couldn't, Collins had always been a favorite of the NFL personnel people. One of them, then-Carolina general manager Bill Polian, took him as the fifth pick in the '95 draft. Collins promptly led the expansion Panthers to the playoffs and made the Pro Bowl as an alternate the next year.
But in 1997, there was a barroom skirmish with teammate Norberto Davidds-Garrido. And a racial remark in front of several African-American teammates. Collins said he was joking. Some teammates distanced themselves from Collins. The next season, Collins told the coaches he couldn't lead the team anymore.
The Panthers cut him, and he signed with the Saints, a team going nowhere with changing quarterbacks. In his final three games, Collins was a scattershot, 49% passer. Billy Joe Tolliver, that old NFL benchwarmer, replaced him in two of the games.
''We had very high grades for Collins,'' Accorsi said. ''When I looked at him early in '98 at Carolina, he played damn well.'' Then Accorsi watched those final Saints games. ''We turned the tape off,'' he said. ''At that point, there was no sense watching it.''
Polian thinks he knows why Collins began throwing his career away. ''What has been discounted for the sake of political correctness is that broken jaw,'' said Polian, referring to a blow by Denver linebacker Bill Romanowski in a '97 preseason game. ''The broken jaw was a horrendous injury. A vicious cheap shot.''
According to Polian, the Panthers used bad judgment with the injury. ''He came back way too soon,'' Polian said. ''To his everlasting credit, he was not the same guy. We felt he could get us to the Super Bowl. We were all crazy for bringing him back that soon.''
Polian was right about Collins, who is one more big game away from a Super Bowl championship. Accorsi was right, too. And so was Collins, who now leads a model life.
''There was a little misrepresentation here,'' Steinberg said. ''At the end of his second year, he was one of the hottest quarterbacks in the league.'' Steinberg recalled wins against San Francisco and Dallas. ''They asked him to let loose in the passing game, just like the Giants did. People cross paths, and a star is born.''
In analyzing Collins two years ago, Accorsi remembered scouting a Penn State-Illinois game. ''He was 7-for-7 on a 92-yard drive,'' Accorsi said. ''And that was against an Illinois team with Simeon Rice and Kevin Hardy, with a national title on the line.''
Accorsi grew up in Hershey, Pa., not far from Lebanon, Collins' home town. ''When he told me that DeAngelis' restaurant had the best pizza in western Pennsylvania, I knew we'd agree on a lot of things,'' Accorsi said.
Over the years, Accorsi has been involved in many quarterback deals. But not the John Elway deal when he worked in Baltimore. Colts owner Bob Irsay made that one. Accorsi learned about it on an ESPN show.
The Collins deal will be remembered by a lot of people. It got the Giants into the Super Bowl. It probably saved Jim Fassel's job and maybe Accorsi's, too. It was bold and it was for a lot of money.
''They saw the competitiveness, the toughness,'' Polian said. ''He'll take a shot in the ribs to complete a pass. That's how he got his jaw broken.''
In New York, a city with five million Monday quarterbacks, they laughed at the Kerry Collins deal. Now they are scuffling for Super Bowl tickets.