Backup in the Forefront
Collins Has Patiently Bided His Time While Waiting for the Call

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."

Against the Bears, Collins led the Redskins to all the points they scored. He threw a 21-yard touchdown pass to tight end Todd Yoder to give the Redskins a 7-0 lead at halftime. After the Bears cut the lead to 17-13 late in the fourth quarter, Collins teamed with running back Ladell Betts on a 16-yard touchdown pass. Along the way, Collins made all the correct decisions against the Bears' eight-man fronts and aggressive blitz schemes.

"Todd did some great things," wide receiver Santana Moss said. "As a receiver, we expect Todd to go out there and do what he do, because we see it every day. Even though he don't get in the game and get a chance to play, in practice I watch him. I just watch how fluent he is when he runs the offense."

Coach Joe Gibbs has watched Collins closely, too. Gibbs said it's not uncommon for backups to perform well in relief, but "I am not sure I have had anybody play that well coming off the bench at quarterback. That is against a defense [in which] the basic scheme for that defense is they are coming after you and loading the box. You are going to have to throw. They are not going to let you run. He reads everything. He is one of the brightest guys I have been around.

"What amazes me is week in and week out that you can get prepared the way he does. He is mentally sharp on every single thing. Each week in practice he is the first one to call out if it is the wrong formation. He never gets mentally lazy. It showed up in this game, [he] was ready to go and he made key plays. He stood up in there against some real pressure, against a real good rush group, and made some key plays and key throws."

Al Saunders expected nothing less. Saunders, Washington's associate head coach-offense, had a good relationship with Collins, with whom he worked for six seasons in Kansas City. Collins was either Kansas City's backup or No. 3 quarterback for eight seasons, and Saunders thought Collins would be a good fit in Washington and would help Campbell develop. Gibbs hired Saunders before last season and Collins joined Saunders, signing a two-year contract for about $2.5 million. Collins watched from the sideline last season while the Redskins made the transition from Brunell to Campbell and for the first 12 games this season, but his focus never waned, Saunders said.

"He played the way I would expect Todd to play," Saunders said. "He prepares every week like he's going to start. That sort of effort and that sort of preparation turned out to be a very good performance by him and the guys. . . . I've known Todd for eight years and there was no doubt in my mind that, if given the opportunity, he could perform at a very high level."

Collins said he never doubted his ability, but he hasn't had many opportunities to start in the NFL. After a productive career at Michigan, the Bills tabbed Collins to replace Jim Kelly, selecting Collins in the second round (45th overall) in the 1995 draft. Collins backed up Kelly during the 1995 and '96 seasons, and beat out Alex Van Pelt and Billy Joe Hobert for the starting job in 1997.

Starting 13 games, Collins completed 55 percent of his passes for 2,367 yards, with 12 touchdowns, 13 interceptions and a 69.5 passer rating. The Bills, however, apparently wanted more from Collins, and he left to join the Chiefs in 1998. And that's where his long wait began. From 2001 through 2005, quarterback Trent Green started every game for the Chiefs. Ironically, Green played in only eight games for Kansas City last season, but Collins already had moved on to the Redskins. Collins moved ahead of Brunell this season, but he still was behind Campbell.

"It gets frustrating," Collins said. "You prepare, you put in the hours and the hard work to get rewarded and get to play, and then you don't play. I don't control why some of those things happen, some of the timing of things, so I just took it upon myself that I was going to be prepared. When my opportunity came, I wanted to be ready, confident and comfortable.

"The years pile up, the games pile up, where I didn't get the opportunity, but that kind of drove me to continue to prepare because I don't want to let any of that work go to waste. If I take a week off, that might be the time when my number is called."

A prep standout in baseball, basketball and football while growing up in Massachusetts, Collins is an avid fan of the Boston Red Sox and knowledgeable about many of Boston's teams. He's known for peppering teammates and friends with Red Sox trivia, and for generally "just having this goofy little thing about him," center Casey Rabach said. "He does these little quirky things that keep everybody at ease. I guess you just have to know Todd to understand."

Over the next three weeks, the Redskins' fans could learn a lot about Collins.

"No one knows what's going to happen," Collins said. "What I do know is that we've got three games left, and I'm going to do everything I can to help this team get into the playoffs. I'm ready. I've been ready."

Redskins Note: The NFL has moved the Dec. 23 game against the Minnesota Vikings to 8:15 p.m., which means the team's next two Sunday games will be nationally televised night games.

Staff writers Jason La Canfora and Mike Wise contributed to this report.

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