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A More-Than-Consistent Backup Plan

By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 31, 2007

Little was expected when Todd Collins took over for the injured Jason Campbell in Week 13 of a season that was slipping away from the Washington Redskins.

With 10 years gone by since his last NFL start, Collins was like Rip Van Winkle roused from his slumber. Who could expect a 36-year-old career backup quarterback to be sharp with a decade of rust in his throwing arm?

Collins had defied all logic coming into yesterday's game, coming off the bench to lead the Redskins to three successive victories with exceptional poise and precision, playing in that rare zone of near perfection that simply can't be sustained.

Then came yesterday's regular season finale against the Dallas Cowboys, a game Coach Joe Gibbs declared the most significant since his return to coaching four years ago. A playoff berth was at stake. And all Collins had to do to claim it was vanquish the second-best team in the NFL this season.

He got off to a rocky start.

Under a driving rain, Collins, whose parents traveled from Walpole, Mass., for the game, struggled to hold onto the football and fumbled on just his fifth passing attempt.

On Washington's next possession, he fired the ball into the hands of a Dallas defender for what would have been his first interception since taking over as the team's starter on Dec. 9. A pass interference call negated the play.

Collins would fumble again in the first half after getting blindsided as he cocked his right arm back to throw. This time Dallas came away with a field goal.

For some quarterbacks, a rough first half in a must-win game might have proven their unraveling, prompting them to take foolish risks in an effort to compensate for their glitches. But Collins played on as if nothing had happened.

And in the end, after he had led Washington into the playoffs with a 27-6 victory over a team whose resolve was clearly suspect in stretches, there was something oddly reassuring about the fact that Collins had finally played a game in which his every throw and decision didn't seem charmed.

He wasn't just playing on serendipity against Dallas. He was playing on toughness. And next to character, that's the quality that Gibbs values most in quarterbacks.

"He has great character and toughness," Gibbs said of Collins, who he singled out for praise afterward. "He is oblivious to the rush. He makes good decisions. And he does smart things out there."

Gibbs cut short a question about whether Collins's heady play of late raises questions about who will start at quarterback once Campbell is deemed ready to return, saying curtly that this wasn't the time to talk about that.

Collins followed the head coach into the interview room. Until a few weeks ago, he had no idea where the room was, never having been asked to talk to throngs of reporters after a Redskins game. Though he knew his way this time, he had no airs about him.

Asked why he hadn't been rattled by his pair of early fumbles, Collins answered matter-of-factly, "I knew what happened. I mean, sometimes they win. They get paid to play, too! I'm just going to go on with my progressions."

Tackle Chris Samuels insisted that he and Stephon Heyer were to blame for the fumbles.

"That wasn't on Todd," Samuels said. "That was on the two tackles. Todd has been outstanding. He is leading this group, man. And we're rallying behind him."

Collins finished his third start with another set of sterling statistics, completing 22 of 31 passes for 244 yards -- including a 42-yard beauty to Santana Moss in the fourth quarter that nudged the Redskins' lead to 27-3. It translated to an NFL passer rating of 104.8. But to hear Collins recount the day, you'd have thought he was no more than an asterisk to Washington's improbable achievement.

"I just feel like I'm kind of along for the ride," he said.

Now that ride is taking the Redskins to Seattle for a first-round playoff game.

"It's the first time I've been in position to quarterback a team with a chance to go to the playoffs," Collins said. "Then to get into the playoffs, and to beat the Cowboys at home to do it."

It was hard, indeed, to believe.

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