Backup in the Forefront

Todd Collins
Redskins quarterback Todd Collins completed 15 of 20 passes for 224 yards and two touchdowns Thursday. (Jim Young - Reuters)
By Jason Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The plan was to take a leisurely drive home. Just some time for Washington Redskins quarterback Todd Collins to be alone with his thoughts while traveling Friday from his residence near Redskins Park to his family's home outside Boston. But Collins's plans changed after his strong performance in relief of injured starter Jason Campbell during Thursday night's 24-16 victory over the Chicago Bears.

Collins completed 15 of 20 passes for 224 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions, resulting in a slew of congratulatory voice and text messages on his cellphone the next morning. Old friends wanted to reconnect with Collins, and reporters had questions for the Redskins' new No. 1 quarterback. So the long drive became a working trip for Collins, whose return to the spotlight could last a while.

"A lot of people who watched the game were happy to see me get a chance, and I had a lot of catching up to do," Collins said yesterday. "But I've done this before, I just haven't had the opportunity to do it in a long time. Now, I've gotten an opportunity due to injury, which you never like to see happen, but you just have to roll with it and do the best you can. This is what I've prepared for every week."

A decade after his last starting job with the Buffalo Bills, Collins, 36, is at the top of Washington's depth chart. Campbell is expected to be sidelined for four weeks after dislocating his left kneecap against the Bears, sources close to the quarterback said, leaving Collins and former starter Mark Brunell, 37, as the only healthy quarterbacks on the roster. The Redskins could sign a fourth quarterback and keep Campbell active in case they qualify for the playoffs.

Despite playing the entire season with a makeshift offensive line because of injuries, losing five games in which they led at halftime, struggling to cope with the death of safety Sean Taylor and now being without their franchise quarterback down the stretch, the Redskins still are in contention for an NFC wild-card berth. Collins is scheduled to start Sunday's game against the New York Giants (his first start since Dec. 14, 1997), and the Redskins are confident Collins is right for the job.

"Todd prepares as hard as anybody," left guard Pete Kendall said. "That's got to be a very difficult position to be in, to always be one play away but knowing it's not going to be your turn unless something goes wrong. You have to commend him for his professionalism since he's been here, but you also have to commend him for how he played when Jason got hurt. For us as a team, with the situation we're in now, that was more important."

Collins, who had not thrown a pass in a regular season game since Dec. 19, 2004, had to spell Campbell twice against Chicago at FedEx Field. With about six minutes remaining in the first half of a scoreless game, Campbell injured his right elbow after being hit while scrambling and Collins went in for a play.

Then, with just less than three minutes left before halftime, Bears defensive end Mark Anderson landed on Campbell's left knee, and Campbell was carted off the field with his leg in an air cast. The short- and long-term effect of losing Campbell was apparent in the pained expressions on the faces of the offensive linemen as Collins went to the huddle.

"We were all a little worried," left tackle Chris Samuels said. "It had nothing to do with Todd. We all know that Todd is a professional and he knows the offense, but you don't want to see your starting quarterback going off the field like that. Ever."

It was the situation for which Collins had prepared most during a 13-year NFL career spent primarily as a backup. Collins didn't just hold clipboards and collect paychecks with the Redskins or during previous stints in Buffalo and Kansas City, coaches and players familiar with his work ethic said. Collins studies the offenses he plays in so well he knows where everyone else should be on each play.

"He's so bright," former Kansas City coach Dick Vermeil said. "He, better than anybody I've been around, can play well without taking practice reps. The reason is, he mentally takes the snap. In his mind, he envisions himself as the starter even when he's not starting.

"Todd Collins is extremely efficient. He doesn't have a real strong arm, but he's very accurate. He'll be conservative at times, but he'll put the ball where it's supposed to be. You're not going to fool him."

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