Rocket Launcher

He always had a powerful arm, but now Collins' star rises as he limits mistakes

It was an incomplete pass in a meaningless game. But it was the kind of throw that makes football people shake their heads and marvel when they talk about Kerry Collins.

Late in the second quarter of last week's preseason game against the Jets, the Giants quarterback stood flat-footed about 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage, leaned back and flung the ball almost casually in the direction of Tim Carter, who was streaking down the right sideline.

It flew over the secondary and landed softly in Carter's arms 35 yards downfield, at the 5-yard line. But Carter failed to drag a second foot inbounds and the Giants settled for a field-goal attempt that failed.

Coaches and teammates were amazed, but not surprised. Collins has been wowing people with his arm for 20 years. The only difference now is that because he long ago cleaned up his off-field life, and more recently cleaned up his on-field decisions, the purity of his throwing has shone like never before.

"He's not a normal guy," receiver Ike Hilliard said. "That's why he's one of the elite . . . He's [the best] of the guys I've played with, by far, not even close. I don't think there's a throw he can't make."

Did Collins ever doubt his physical ability, even when things were going wrong with the Panthers and Saints during his awful 1998 season?

"No, not really," he said. "The physical part, I've always been able to do. So, no, no." He paused, then sensed the questioner had hoped for further details. "Do you want more of an answer?" he said.

General manager Ernie Accorsi said he, too, never considered the possibility Collins might not be good enough when he signed him in 1999. He pinned the immediate future of the team on a player with an alcohol problem, 51 touchdown passes and 64 interceptions.

"He was a great player in college," Accorsi said. "He was a great player in high school. He took a team to the [NFC] championship game, and we had high grades on him coming out [of college]. When I looked at him even in the year Carolina cut him, he was trying to carry the team on his shoulders. He projected to be this kind of quarterback."

And yet, he was a work in progress as recently as this time last year. Collins was very good in 2000 but threw four interceptions in the loss to the Ravens in Super Bowl XXXV. He had a mediocre 2001, and the team resisted giving him a huge contract extension before last season, eventually settling on a modest one that will take him through 2004.

Even Collins often said before last season that he had to work on eliminating the mistakes that dragged down the team and his passer rating.

Then came 2002, especially the stunning offensive run over the last two months, and the doubts about Collins disappeared. He finished with a team-record 4,073 passing yards, and another 342 in one playoff game, plus career highs in completion percentage (.615), completions (335) and rating (85.4).

At age 30, with thinning hair and gray flecks in his beard, Collins had achieved the goal he set before the season: the confluence of athletic ability and feel for the game that often comes later to quarterbacks than other players.

"I give the coaches a lot of credit - Jim [Fassel] number one, and [former quarterbacks coach Sean] Payton," Accorsi said. "He had to have a lot of things smoothed out fundamentally, and they've done a great job with him."

Hilliard said Collins knows how and when to use his physical gifts.

"He knows he has a cannon but he also knows when he doesn't need to throw the ball hard," he said. "When he has to thread the needle, we know what to expect. But I don't think Kerry's the kind of quarterback to fire the football across the field just to show he has a strong arm. We all know that."

Ask Collins what is next in his development and for the first time since he arrived he does not mention fundamentals or decision-making.

"I just think I need to be more of a presence, more of a vocal presence, and more of a leader than I have been," he said. "Of course, you're always working on things, but as far as decision-making and that sort of thing, I feel pretty good about that part, and I feel like I made strides in a lot of mechanical areas. Now it's just a matter of watching to make sure I don't develop any bad habits."

Even Collins' biggest perceived weakness is starting to look like a plus. One reason he has started 54 consecutive games, and has not missed a game because of injury since 1997, is his relative immobility.

The Falcons' Michael Vick and the Jets' Chad Pennington suffered serious injuries this preseason when they were scrambling away from pressure.

Lack of speed and pizzazz is one reason Collins has not captured the imagination of fans and journalists around the country. His most accomplished Giants predecessor, Phil Simms, considers him the most underrated quarterback in the league. But as Simms said recently in Giant Insider magazine, "How mobile do you have to be when you're throwing for 4,000 yards?"

All of this is a remarkable turn of events for the Giants, who struggled through the mid-to-late 1990s with the likes of Dave Brown, Danny Kanell and Kent Graham. Fassel arrived in 1997 with a reputation for developing quarterbacks, but Collins was the first with the right raw ingredients.

"I don't feel sorry for other [coaches] when I hear, 'Well, they don't have a quarterback to win with,' " Fassel said. "I came here with that circumstance and nobody cut me an inch of slack. But when we found Kerry and he came in and started to develop, and the character he showed, that was a key in trying to get good. He was a cornerstone.

"Kerry could have come here and not had the character he showed and we would still be still looking for a quarterback."

If Collins has a big season, he will be in line for the blockbuster extension he did not get last year. That is a long way from 1999, when Accorsi had to rely on his old friend Joe Paterno, Collins' coach at Penn State, in determining that Collins was salvageable.

"I don't think Kerry's had his best years yet," Accorsi said. "I think he will be like [the Raiders' Rich] Gannon in that his best years will be after 30."

Collins is 141 yards from passing Fran Tarkenton for third on the team's all-time yardage list, and might be one championship away from challenging Simms as the best quarterback in Giants history. He is not ready to hear that yet, though. He said he thinks about his legacy occasionally, but not often.

"That's the kind of thing I can look back on when I'm done," he said. "Not now. I'm right in the middle of it."
Aug. 31, 03