Kerry Collins was one of the few Giants with little to prove in their first preseason game tonight. He is guaranteed to be the starting quarterback when the team opens its season in a month and he worked on fine-tuning his game.
With his job done, Collins turned into the offense's main apologist. Collins was the highlight of a unit that failed to score a touchdown in a 20-8 loss to the Chicago Bears at Giants Stadium.
"The thing I'm worried about is one of the adjustments we wanted to make this year is capitalizing on red-zone opportunities," Collins said. "Not being able to score twice with this offense, that's something we need to work on."
Without the shadow of another quarterback, Collins shined. In his first game since the Giants released Kent Graham last spring, Collins displayed the air attack the team has sought since the days of Phil Simms. The Giants' offense is a work in progress and is still learning the plays installed by the new offensive coordinator, Sean Payton.
But in Collins, they have a leader with a gifted arm. Tonight he completed an eye-popping 15 of 18 passes for 117 yards in little more than a quarter of action. Yet he left with the Giants leading by only 5-3. The difference was a safety by defensive tackle Christian Peter.
This was the first game after training camp, and Collins was not perfect. He fumbled a snap on the Giants' second possession, but recovered the ball.
The Giants hope Collins will fill their long-standing quarterback vacancy. He completed four passes for 10 or more yards, including a 29-yard completion to Amani Toomer over the middle for a third-down conversion. Collins alone converted three of five third downs.
Playing three possessions, Collins was unable to carry the offense alone. He guided the Giants to the game's first score, with Brad Daluiso completing the first-quarter drive with a 37-yard field goal.
A year removed from a stunning organizational shift in philosophy, Collins enters this season bearing the brunt of the team's expectations. The Giants signed Collins to a four-year, $16.9 million contract before the 1999 season, which surprised many people because he would enter that fall as a highly paid backup to Graham. But Graham struggled, was injured and finally lost his starting job to Collins for good in the Giants' 11th game. In limited time, Collins became the first 2,000-yard passer in Coach Jim Fassel's three years with the Giants.
The team reaffirmed its commitment by releasing Graham during the off season in a move that had as much to do with cutting salary as it had with showing confidence in Collins.
Tonight Collins reinforced the Giants' belief that he is the man to end the team's quarterback drought. But their inability to enter the end zone even with him directing their offense tonight is evidence of their growing pains. One of the underlying themes to the season has been the revamped offensive line, and tonight it provided Collins with ample time to find a receiver. He was barely pressured by the Bears and said the line did an outstanding job.
Collins was pleased with his improved reads of defenses and had no problem moving the offense. He twice had his team inside the Bears' 20-yard line. The Giants could not score, and they most likely would have, had Collins remained in the game. While the quarterback voiced some frustration, he was not ready to label it a major concern.
"I think it's too early for that," Collins said. "It's the first preseason game. We're working on it. We'll get better as time moves on. But I don't think there's any reason to push the panic button right now."
The highly touted rookie Ron Dayne is also expected to be a prime facet of the offense. The Heisman Trophy winner from Wisconsin received polite applause from the modest crowd when he entered the game on the Giants' second possession, but he was later stopped for a 1-yard loss on third-and-1 at the Bears' 5-yard line.
Depth is another concern for the Giants, as they are dangerously thin at several positions. The Giants had also planned on an expanded offense now that Fassel has turned over the play-calling to Payton. But one of the keys to that intricate attack is tight end Pete Mitchell, who left in the third quarter with what the team said was a severely sprained left knee.
Collins was not at a loss for targets tonight. He and Toomer combined for 49 yards on four catches. Tiki Barber caught five Collins passes for 22 yards. Collins left the Giants with one less worry.