Collins At Peace With Self

Where would Kerry Collins be now if he had not signed a contract extension on the day training camp began? Consider two possibilities:

Having been distracted by his status as a contractual lame duck, the quarterback wouldn't have been at his best on the field, and his status as a team leader would have been weakened.

Or ... He would have had the same record-breaking season he did have and be in line for a far more lucrative deal as a free agent than the two-year extension, through 2004, that he signed in July.

Collins cannot discount the latter possibility but was concerned enough about the former that he did sign the modest contract, and he remains convinced it was the right thing for himself and the Giants. "It took all the pressure off the indecisiveness," he said yesterday after practice for Sunday's wild-card game against the 49ers. "Now, I just concentrate on football."

Collins' extension and the one defensive end Michael Strahan signed a month later have been forgotten in most looks back at an offseason marked by the departure of several veterans and the arrival of tight end Jeremy Shockey. But they were key elements in the relative tranquility that helped the Giants climb back from the brink of playoff extinction.

"It has turned out pretty well," general manager Ernie Accorsi said. "The best thing about the Strahan and Collins signings was that they eliminated a [potential] distraction."

The seven-year, $46-million contract Strahan signed was roughly what he would have commanded as a free agent after this season. But Collins' deal, worth about $15 million over three seasons, was for far less than what he would now be worth, after passing for a team-record 4,073 yards.

At the time, though, the Giants weren't willing to go higher, still unconvinced Collins was their man for the long term. Collins, who was annoyed and concerned in the offseason about his status, did not want to be a lame duck, so he signed the deal.

"One thing the extension did for me was, even though it wasn't the biggest that's ever been signed, was it made me feel like I earned it," Collins said. "Coming out of college [in 1995], you didn't really feel like you earned it, and when I came here [in 1999] did I feel like I earned it? Not really. But I felt like I earned this one, and that does a lot for your confidence and feeling of self-worth. So I definitely think that had a lot to do with [the good season]."

Since coach Jim Fassel took over the play-calling after seven games, Collins has 14 TD passes and six interceptions. His 85.4 rating is a career best.

Now the trick is keeping it up. No matter what Collins has done lately, observers with long memories always wait for him to implode. He had three fumbles Saturday against the Eagles, all of which the Giants recovered, but he finished strongly. And remember the four interceptions against the Ravens in the Super Bowl?

Collins threw more than two interceptions only once this season (three in the opener against the 49ers) and had eight fumbles after a record 23 in 2001. Most encouraging is he is in his prime at a position that rewards smarts as much as physical skills. He turned 30 on Monday, 10 days after NFL MVP Rich Gannon of the Raiders turned 37.

Collins said Gannon "absolutely" is an inspiration. "A lot of times, brains are going to win out in this league, especially at our position," he said. "The savvy, old quarterback who knows his limitations and strengths will give you some good games and good years."
Jan. 3,03