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Backup Steps to Front

By Thomas Boswell
Monday, December 24, 2007

MINNEAPOLIS

Todd Collins has lived his whole professional life for this, for the last three Redskins victories and especially for Sunday night here in the Metrodome. Finally, at 36, in a dry comfy indoor stadium against a team with a weak pass defense, the vet who waited 10 years between NFL starts finally got to show what he could do with everything on his side. For once, he was the man with proper preparation, with a game plan designed for him and, most important, with a run at the playoffs on the line.

With patience and modesty in his decision-making, with confidence in his abilities and knowledge of his limits, Collins carved up the Vikings just as every backup quarterback who ever lived has done in his dreams. Except that, among them all, few have ever lived their fantasies more fully that Collins did here, completing 22 of 29 passes for 254 yards, 2 touchdowns and a dazzling 124.8 quarterback rating in a 32-21 victory. More impressive, his early passing blitz gave the Redskins a 25-0 lead, took the quick-to-quit Metrodome crowd of 63,634 out of the game before halftime and convinced the Redskins this game was theirs.

"I just haven't had the opportunity to play. I got to start one year [in Buffalo in '97]. Then it was 10 years trying to get that next chance," said Collins who may be a considerably better quarterback after a decade of film study and skill drills to speed up his delivery and reads. "I'm much better at a lot of things than I was back then." It just took a decade to start finding out.

In a perfect contrast to Collins's poise and seasoned judgment, the Vikings were sabotaged by their inexperienced second-year quarterback, Tarvaris Jackson, who passed for only 50 yards in the first half while throwing two interceptions to Fred Smoot and Shawn Springs who returned those picks 47 and two yards, respectively. Thus, the Redskins had only one less yard on interception returns than the befuddled Vikings had from Jackson's passing.

Now, in an amazing 18-day span in which Collins has beaten Chicago in a relief role then survived frigid winds in the Meadowlands to knock off the Giants, the virtually unknown backup has taken the Redskins to the brink of one of the most amazing trips to the postseason in the franchise's long history. Along the way, nine days ago, he even took a brief, almost surrealistic, trip back to Walpole, Mass., for the birth of his second son.

"I've said that the job Todd [did] against the Bears was probably the best I've ever seen off the bench. He's just followed that up," said Coach Joe Gibbs. "We knew he was real smart and super prepared but I think he's a legit tough guy. And, after character, I think that's the most important quality in a quarterback."

The emergence of Collins came after the dislocated kneecap of starter Jason Campbell against the Bears is the single more pivotal turning point in the Redskins' improbable postseason rush. Until his understated efficient heroics, with zero interceptions in 74 passes so far and a 107.0 quarterback rating, the Redskins seemed on the verge of being overwhelmed by injuries.

If the Redskins beat the Cowboys next Sunday -- in a game Dallas does not need to win, except perhaps on general Redskin-Cowboy principles of hatred -- Washington will have an almost incomprehensible January playoff date.

On that dismal day, December 3 in Miami, at Sean Taylor's funeral, perhaps no one in the NFL could have imagined the Redskins could rise so high so suddenly. The previous day, the Redskins lost in the last seconds to the Bills, aided by a coaching blunder by Gibbs, and their last reasonable postseason hopes seemed to expire. Since then, nothing reasonable has happened, just a succession of magnificent improbabilities on which the Redskins now seem to ride like a magic carpet.

The man with a front seat on that carpet is Collins. Yet early in the fourth quarter, after the Vikings cut their deficit to 25-14, Collins felt for an instant that the rug might be snatched out from under him. While trying to get off a quick snap to prevent the Vikings from having time to challenge a 23-yard completion to Santana Moss, Collins made exactly the kind of needless, but killing mistake that a veteran backup must avoid. He fumbled the hurry-up snap.

But Gibbs, on advice from coaches with replay access, challenged the play, claiming Minnesota had 12 men on the field. As proof, perhaps, that Gibbs's luck, on challenges, timeouts and when to go-for-it -- may have turned, the Redskins won the challenge.

"I thanked Coach Gibbs for bailing us out," said Collins. Of course, Mr. Backup has been doing most of the bailing lately.

Playing quarterback in the NFL is about recognition. For 10 years, Collins did not start a single game, but every day, as a Chief or Redskin, he stood on the field in practice and learned to recognize what he saw. Somewhere, during all those years, the pro game, despite all its speed, violence and apparent confusion, began to make sense to him. "I did so many drills all those years working on footwork, timing, getting things to happen as quickly as they need to in this offense," said Collins. "Sometimes, I felt like I was out of my comfort zone going at that speed. But I got there."

Collins arm isn't strong as Jackson's or his feet as nimble. But Collins understood what he saw in front of him; the Viking didn't. In the second quarter, Collins was back doing what he does best: recognizing. Throughout the NFL, the current trend is to isolate a superior wide receiver on a deep bomb and trust the best athlete to come down with the ball. In his starts, Campbell hesitated to risk such deep one-on-one throws, fearing they might be intercepted. Collins has no such luxury. When Collins spotted Moss alone racing up the sideline with rookie cornerback Marcus McCauley, he lobbed a perfectly pleasant but not particularly special spiral that either man might catch. Moss did. Ring up a 32-yard touchdown for a 16-0 Redskins lead. And credit it to recognition and the humble ability of a backup quarterback to let a star like Moss perform his adjust-to-the-bomb-in-flight specialty. "We have guys on the perimeter that can win," said Collins, who'll let them try.

Collins presents a fascinating paradox. While his athletic limits prevent him from doing much scrambling or attempting pass patterns that require a rifle arm -- in other words, while he tries to do considerably less than Campbell in a purely athletic sense -- Collins's grasp of the entire system actually allows Al Saunders to attempt far more in a strategic sense.

So, just how good is this Todd Collins? Gibbs doesn't pretend to know. "I'm thrilled to see him get his chance," he said.

Until Collins arrived, the Washington offense under the young still-learning Campbell never looked as smooth as it does now. Can a team so injured and emotionally exhausted actually be peaking? Or is the fuel almost gone?

Collins, who waited so long for this, prepared so achingly, thinks he knows. His tank is full.

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