Collins will be the Man

Percy Ellsworth had seen the footage of Kerry Collins staggering out of police custody with a smug smile. He had heard the stories of this lost soul trying to pass a racist joke for locker room laughs, walking out on the Carolina Panthers, and failing with the New Orleans Saints. When the Giants rewarded the quarterback with riches, Ellsworth wondered with everyone else: To whom have we handed over our team?

"I'll be honest," the Giants safety said Sunday. "Once you hear those things, your bravado and macho gets going, and you say, 'If he [Collins] says this, or does that here, I'll do this or that to him.' "

One day Collins approached Ellsworth with a handshake and a warm smile. They visited for a few minutes, shared a couple of laughs, and Ellsworth walked away willing to give him a chance. Across an uneasy locker room, the Giants have found Collins to be decent enough, polite, humble, and determined to sell his sincerity one teammate at a time.

"I'm aware of how I may be perceived, about some of the things people have heard and read," Collins said. "I'm going to bust my butt and let everyone get to know me. I'm confident that they'll like what they find."

Collins has confronted a drinking problem, stopped living a frat boy life, and started to repair his reputation. All important to his life, all worthless in the workplace without his golden arm. This is the NFL, where judge and jury hold trial on the field. Eventually, Collins stepped into the pocket, fired the football, and the Giants found a fast friend.

"I've seen him make some throws that kind of leave your mouth open," Ellsworth said. "The kind of throws not too many quarterbacks in this league can make. He's going to be something special."

Kerry Collins will be the starting quarterback for the Giants this season. Will he overtake Kent Graham on Week 2, Week 4, Week 6? That's the debate. They watch the power and precision of his arm, his touch on tough passes, and the Giants understand the risk could be worth the reward. Collins has the promise to lift this franchise into contention, the past to implode. As usual, the talent makes him worth the time and aggravation.

Coach Jim Fassel is honoring his promise of awarding Graham the starting job out of training camp. But with $17.5 million and management's good name on the line with Collins, Graham understands these circumstances are conspiring to crush his candidacy.

Even so, it isn't simply circumstances dooming Graham. It's talent, it's production. Ultimately, that'll win out for Collins. At 30, Graham is destined for the second string. There's always an upgrade available on him. He won't be great. He won't be bad. For those reasons, it'll never be clear when it's proper time to make the change to Collins.

It could get messy, turning into a source of contention between the general manager and coach. Collins could turn into the Giants' Marcus Camby, with Ernie Accorsi and Fassel playing the parts of Ernie Grunfeld and Jeff Van Gundy.

See, Fassel has a soft spot for Graham. They go back a few years, to the Arizona Cardinals, and Graham has always intrigued the coach. Still, Fassel isn't so blinded with loyalty to believe Graham can get the Giants deep into the playoffs -- never mind to the Super Bowl.

"The Giants haven't had one of those guys with consistency since [Phil] Simms, and that's always going to be on the major forefront for us," Fassel said on the day of Collins' signing. "You need a guy to play that way, and until we established that, we're looking for that guy to help us go all the way. Not just win a few games."

Graham could get the Giants to 10 victories and perhaps the playoffs in the lousy NFC East, but isn't beyond that the goal? Graham is a popular player, made more popular, perhaps, for replacing the inept Danny Kanell. Even so, the Giants won five of six games with Graham as the starter in 1998, including the victory over the unbeaten Denver Broncos. He's charismatic, a leader, a good guy. He's hard to root against.

"Kent deserves to start," Collins said. "I don't think it's any secret that I haven't taken well to the spotlight."

Accorsi researched Collins to the ends of the earth, just to discover a solid reputation as a college and high school All-American. In the end, Accorsi found an immature player, given too much, too fast with the expansion Panthers. He found a lonely kid living in a strange city. As quickly as he led Carolina to the NFC Championship Game in 1996, earning a trip to the Pro Bowl, Collins unraveled and dropped into an abyss.

Collins doesn't seem to be bothered with starting the season with a clipboard and cap. There's no rush. From the off-season conditioning and minicamps of North Jersey, to the meetings and training table of Albany, Collins has been careful to cultivate a favorable impression for himself. An admitted "borderline slob," he's sharing a room at camp with Jason Sehorn, notorious for his cleanliness.

"I'm neurotic now, making sure everything is cleaned up, spotless, and nothing's in his way," Collins said.

It's easy to admire Kerry Collins' eagerness, but who are we kidding: Have you seen how he throws the ball?