By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 7, 2006
Every Washington Redskins receiver has felt the sting of a football slapping his face at some point over the past few months. Inevitably, the receiver was just a step slow, a moment late coming out of his cut in a drill, and Todd Collins's spot-on spiral was there to greet him with no time for his hands to be of any use.
Each occurrence was a reminder of the precision necessary to execute associate head coach Al Saunders's offense, and the gap between Collins's mastery of this complex offensive system and the receivers' collective inexperience.
Timing is everything, with the ball quickly delivered from the quarterback -- well before a receiver makes his move to the open field. To Collins, entering his seventh season in Saunders's offense, the process is routine, with Saunders calling him the embodiment of the system. Everyone else is still trying to catch on -- literally.
"He knows this offense, and you can tell with the way he releases the ball," Pro Bowl wide receiver Santana Moss said. "You turn your head and you have to really look for his ball, because it's hitting you in the face half the time if you're not ready. You'll be reaching up with your hands up high and it's already coming down. I haven't seen a day when he didn't get that ball out on time. So he's the guy who's going to be getting us right when it comes to timing. He's a perfect fit for this offense."
That, more than anything else, would explain why a quarterback who has not started a game since 1997, with just 12 appearances and 18 completions in that span, was pursued by Washington this offseason. Collins, 34, is an on-field extension of Saunders, and when the offensive whiz joined the organization in January, the longtime backup was not far behind. Saunders trusts Collins, and the veteran would appear to be the front-runner to back up Mark Brunell this season as second-year quarterback Jason Campbell, 24, continues to adjust to the professional game, learning yet another offense and absorbing Saunders's 700-page playbook.
Even Brunell, at 35 and with 141 regular season starts on his résumé, has leaned on Collins these past few months, and players involved in all aspects of the offense say his presence has been a godsend. "I'm so glad we have that guy here," Campbell said.
"He's like another coach on the field." Saunders said: "Right now, probably the most significant person in Jason Campbell's development is Todd Collins."
But counting on a player who has thrown so few meaningful NFL passes in nearly a decade is undoubtedly a gamble, especially at a position as injury-prone as quarterback. Coach Joe Gibbs liked the film of Collins in past preseasons and his rare regular season work, but with so little recent game experience, expectations for Collins requires belief in Saunders's appraisal.
"He's brilliant," Saunders said. "If you ask people who know Todd, one of the first things they would make a reference to is his intelligence. And he's a great technician in what he does. He's very professional in the way he goes about his study and preparation, and his knowledge of this offense is as sound as it could possibly be. He has some tremendous skills. In a quarterback you always like to see a guy with physical skills, emotional skill and mental skills, and great courage, and he has all of those qualities. We're just really happy that he's here."
For Collins, a quick-witted Revolutionary War buff, following Saunders was a no-brainer. The Redskins pursued him from the instant free agency began in March, and he signed a two-year, $2.5 million deal. Unlike in Kansas City, where starter Trent Green never missed a start during Collins's last five years, Brunell has not played a full season since 2000. Saunders believes that, had Collins started for the Chiefs, he would have excelled and that is the kind of support any second-stringer would relish.
"It feels good to be here," Collins said. "I don't have to learn a new offense and I know what the coach expects of me. I pretty much know when I'm doing something right or doing something wrong, but you definitely want to meet those expectations, not only for yourself but for him."
Collins's career has been a series of adjustments. He left Michigan with the best career and single-season completion percentages in team history, and the best average yards per play. Buffalo projected him as a rising star after selecting him in the second round in 1995. Collins, a Boston native, finally won the starting job in 1997, but completed just 55 percent of his passes with 13 interceptions and 12 touchdowns. The team won only five of his 13 starts and lost five of his last six.
He has not started since. Collins went to Kansas City in 1998, but did not throw a pass in his first three seasons, and he has attempted as many as 12 passes in a season just once since leaving Buffalo (2003). But in Saunders he found a mentor, and over time made himself a prototype in the calculated footwork, speedy drop-backs, swift release and intricate timing necessary to thrive in this system.
Collins admits that he sometimes wonders if or when his next start will come, but accepts the life of the backup: Preparing to start despite getting few snaps in practice, and remaining mentally sharp despite such lapses between starts.
"It hasn't happened for me in a number of years," Collins said, "and, yeah, you start to wonder if it'll happen for yourself, but the challenge is to stay focused during the season and the preseason and not slack off in your preparation. That's what motivates me. I want to be prepared because I've put in a lot of work up to this point to squander it now."
In the meantime, Collins will go on being a font of information for his teammates. He already is known for striking up conversations with anyone, anytime, about anything. Receiver Antwaan Randle El learned that Collins is a lifelong renter after arriving in Kansas City uncertain of how long he would stay. Collins and Brunell compared notes about London and their shared interest in traveling abroad. (Collins goes on regular fishing expeditions and took a six-week safari to Africa in 1998.) Campbell has gotten an education on wars and battles from long ago, including the history that took place on some of the islands around Boston Harbor.
"He's always talking about stuff you don't ever think about," Campbell said.
Collins has become something of the class clown in quarterback meetings, as well, which is saying something given Brunell's penchant for levity. ("I try to keep it under wraps a little bit since I'm still the new guy," Collins said.) Brunell and Collins met when they were in college, playing against each other at one point. Brunell was a history major, so they have plenty in common.
"He's been a huge help to me in this system," said Brunell, who was close to Patrick Ramsey, now playing for the New York Jets. "I can ask Al [questions] and I can ask [quarterback coach] Bill [Lazor], but there's another guy there who has actually done it and has been on the field time and time again in this offense. So I ask him as many questions as anybody else.
"I've spent some time with him, and he's a different cat. He's got a great personality and we kind of go back and forth. We have some interesting conversations."