Shades of Simms, Perhaps, in Collins

The first pass Kerry Collins threw was off his back foot. Normally, that is a no-no, but few Giants coaches complained because Collins performed the awkward maneuver with splendid grace. His pass floated perfectly into the waiting hands of wide receiver Amani Toomer for a 19-yard gain. Collins made a tough throw look easy. Three plays later Collins found Ike Hilliard for a 15-yard gain. Another perfect pass. The last play of the drive was a 22-yard touchdown to Toomer, and again, Collins was throwing off his rear foot. He put the football on Toomer's outside left shoulder near the end zone, where only Toomer could catch it.

In one series Collins displayed three things that no Giants quarterback has consistently done since Phil Simms -- accuracy, strength and poise. He finished that first series by completing 4 of 5 passes for 59 yards. Over all, Collins put up 10 points in the first quarter. For the game he was 10 of 19 for 110 yards, his only horrid throw coming in the second quarter when he tried to force a pass to tight end Howard Cross. It was intercepted.

The Giants, however, lost to the Jacksonville Jaguars, 16-13, last night on a bizarre play with seven seconds remaining. But against one of the more complicated defenses in pro football, Collins continued his impressive preseason. He looked sharp against the Bears last week. He handled the Jaguars' zone blitz last night. He has handled challenges off the field, which is why it's time to start believing in him.

Collins makes the offense exciting again, and when was the last time you felt that way about a Giants quarterback? This is not to say he is the next Peyton Manning. And then there is the justified question about whether Collins has truly matured since his partying days as a Carolina Panther. Collins is a recovering alcoholic and remains in the same environment -- the high-pressure world of professional football -- that helped get him in trouble in the first place. Too many athletes drop into oblivion after long soliloquies on how they were going to change their troubled lives. Does the name Michael Irvin ring a bell?

Still, for now, Collins seems extremely genuine, which goes along with his genuine talent. But it is more than his words that make him believable. Teammates maintain that Collins has worked hard to regain the credibility he lost while with Carolina. He spent the off-season intently studying the offense of Coach Jim Fassel, and he knows it better than almost anyone. Collins has gravitated to the role of leader like an Alaskan husky to snow.

What he seems to understand -- and did not as a Carolina Panther -- is that players watch the quarterback, on the field and off, for leadership clues. Some of his years in Carolina were a drunken haze, and Collins lost the respect of his teammates because they thought he was a joke who drank too much. When Collins, again inebriated, called one of his teammates a racial slur after too much beer, that was it for him. He lost the team. He lost the city. He had to go.

With the Panthers, he often ducked tough questions from reporters. Now, he is asked repeatedly about his past.

Tell us about the incident when you used the racial slur with a teammate.

What about your alcoholism? What about the Panthers dropping you as if you were radioactive?

Over and over he is asked, and Collins sits there, patiently enduring the queries because he knows he has to. People are watching. People are always watching the quarterback.

Want further proof that Collins has changed his ways? Some teammates say they have seen him turn down alcohol, several times, in social situations. Earlier in his career Collins was more of a regular on the nightclub scene than Bianca Jagger in the 70's, but with the Giants he has cut down significantly on his partying.

If Collins is just acting, if he is an Irvin-like phony, it is one of the best con jobs in the history of con jobs.

But that's not what is happening here.

When the Giants first signed Collins to a four-year, $16.9 million deal that included a $5 million signing bonus, it seemed like too much money and too much of a gamble. Now, considering the lack of talented throwers in the N.F.L., the acquisition of Collins looks smart.

The true test for Collins will be when the games are real, not this goofy preseason stuff. And all is not perfect with him. At times, his technique is lazy, which leads to the occasional errant throw.

Still, this is his team now, and knowing that only helps his confidence.

The Giants are a playoff team, and for the first time in years, they have a playoff-caliber quarterback.