Collins Knows His Role Well in Saunders's Script

By Mike Wise
Sunday, December 9, 2007

Dick Vermeil was on the line yesterday afternoon, expounding on the quarterbacking virtues of Todd Collins.

Efficient, the coach said of the 36-year-old career backup, whom he once had in Kansas City. Accurate. Prepared. Too smart to be fooled.

Two days after Jason Campbell went down against the Bears and Collins surrendered his headset and engineered Washington's first victory in a month, Vermeil finally added, "This is not a normal backup."

He's right -- in varied ways. Collins isn't just the player who will start his first NFL game since the Clinton administration. As he prepares for the New York Giants next Sunday, he is less of Campbell's replacement and more of an ideal.

Collins represents the hope that someone, anyone, can directly convey Al Saunders's many and varied offensive ideas to a group of players sometimes still grasping for a clue.

Two years after Joe Gibbs hired the wizard behind Vermeil's offensive machine in Kansas City -- Saunders also won a Super Bowl ring in St. Louis under Vermeil as his quarterback coach to Kurt Warner -- the Redskins don't score enough or convert many crucial plays at the end of tight games.

With few exceptions, this offense is not a juggernaut. Instead, one of the men who brought you The Greatest Show on Turf is now on a staff responsible for One of the Most Depressing Shows on Natural Grass.

But now Saunders has his quarterback, the player he specifically brought with him from Kansas City to help communicate the design and schemes of that voluminous playbook -- the 750-page tome that has confounded Mark Brunell, Campbell and a proud and stubborn team that still wonders why the wheel had to be reinvented after going to the playoffs in 2005.

Collins's immediate job is to beat the Giants in New Jersey, the Vikings in Minnesota and Dallas at FedEx Field so he can salvage what's left of this bad dream of a season. But abstractly, his performance will essentially be a referendum on Saunders's true value to Gibbs as an offensive coordinator.

Lost in the debate over whether the offense is Gibbs's or Saunders's is the singular goal of developing Campbell into a consistent winner. And if that is a franchise's stated objective, there is no way Saunders's entire arsenal was ever going to be unveiled this season or last.

"It was too much for Campbell or any young quarterback," Vermeil said. "The volume is so great. Joe Gibbs and Al Saunders did the right thing -- restrict the package to fit his maturity. They aren't running the entire offense right now. Watch. At the start of next season, Jason will be much better than he is now because he'll get more reps in this offense."

Time in this offense is the only remedy, which Collins's has seven years' worth of learning and practicing.

Vermeil said he was proud but not surprised when Collins, who had not thrown a regular season pass since 2004, threw a series of short-to-medium spirals that hit the fingertips of his receivers in motion, including a pretty strike to Ladell Betts that sealed the game on Thursday.

Most observers wonder how competent a quarterback can be when 32 teams passed on him to be a starter since 1997. But Vermeil believes it says more about a perception-is-reality league than Collins.

"Sometimes, players end up playing in an atmosphere of assumption," he said. "It's assumed he's a backup. They've never given him credit for being a starter at one point.

"I can remember trying to get Todd jobs in the offseason instead of planning for him to be with us," Vermeil added. "I couldn't get one team to take a bite. They categorized him."

Vermeil is so enamored with what Collins has left as a starter he boldly said: "He'll win three more. I believe he will."

Wouldn't Saunders just love that? If a career backup like Collins can find the end zone with this playbook, any peer or colleague muttering under their breath sarcastically about Al's genius would have to admit that his system really does work. And that might be hard for more than a few people in Ashburn upset that this offense hasn't clicked yet.

Tension between the defense and offense exists on every NFL staff. It's usually an unspoken rift, brought about by how a coaching staff is structured.

Gregg Williams and Saunders operate independently yet answer to the same boss. The dynamics of the job make them -- and other coordinators on opposite sides of the ball, for that matter -- unconsciously compete for attention, like siblings vying to be the favorite child.

But this staff has added tension. This isn't just Gregg's defense vs. Al's offense and who gets more credit for victory and who gets the most blame for late-game collapses.

Privately, it's also Al's new, digital ways vs. Gibbs's ancient analog gang from the '80s. Joe Bugel, Don Breaux and Jack Burns don't know much about guile, but they've seen how far guts will take a team.

Since Saunders left Kansas City for Washington after the 2005 season, philosophically it's really been Al vs. Redskins World.

Because of injuries and an 11-18 record with Saunders as offensive guru, he's still very much viewed as the outsider on the staff and, perhaps, to owner Daniel Snyder.

So if Gibbs chooses to stay, the peripheral fall guy for another season of missing the playoffs might be Saunders.

Would it be fair, given that Saunders has yet to unleash all his weaponry because of personnel limitations and the control-the-clock, run-game proclivities of Gibbs? Maybe not. But in a win-now league, nothing is fair.

Collins is his instrument for change, the best way to rifle through 750 pages of a new-millennium playbook. Three games isn't a long time to show his detractors what they've been missing. But whether Collins puts the Redskins in the playoffs or not, no one can say Saunders's ideas didn't go down without a fight.

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