By Thomas Boswell
Thursday, January 3, 2008
How can Todd Collins be so good? Why can he run Al Saunders's offensive system so well when neither Mark Brunell nor Jason Campbell could consistently find the ignition switch? Is it a one-month fluke? How long can he maintain his surreal efficiency, posting passer ratings worthy of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning? Are the Washington Redskins now his team for as long as their playoff run lasts, regardless of the state of Campbell's knee? And what about next season?
Collins won't tell you the answers. He chatted politely at Redskins Park yesterday, praising his teammates, deflecting credit and, just once, showing the depth of his passion. Asked if, during his 10-year wait between NFL starts, he ever thought he'd never get another chance to prove himself, Collins said: "It took a long time. But I figured the odds had to be in my favor. But I realized that [my] one time might [also] be my last time: 'This could be it.' I wanted to be ready so I'd have no regrets."
While fans may be mystified by Collins's success, the Redskins grasp it, even as they are dazzled and inspired by it. He is a specific type of quarterback -- a "rhythm passer" -- who is ideally suited, and has been molded for seven years, to fit Saunders's offensive system. Elsewhere, he might not flourish. But here and now, he's the man for the job. Why?
Maybe an analogy will help. Almost everybody has played touch football. Your receiver makes a tricky move and gets open, then you throw the ball. Or maybe, if you're more sophisticated, you see the receiver begin a final move and throw just as the last break is made. Many NFL quarterbacks aren't terribly different from that sandlot passer. See open man, rifle ball to him.
Collins doesn't do that. Endless drills, giving him a quick release, and years of study have taught him a better way. Either at the line of scrimmage or as he drops back to pass, Collins goes through a progression of "reads" and identifies the most vulnerable empty space in the defense. Then he throws the ball, at a specific instant, into that space. Almost magically, a receiver appears just as the ball arrives in his arms.
"In this offense, you throw to a spot, not to a man," center Casey Rabach said. "Al tells us over and over that the receiver isn't going to be open until [the instant] the ball is there."
"This offense is built on trust. We're all veterans," fullback Mike Sellers said. "You've got to be where you are supposed to be, and you have to get there when you are supposed to get there."
Not everyone is suited to this precise style. "Todd has a clock in his head," wide receiver Antwaan Randle El said. "Plenty of 'em don't."
Endless study is required, as well as faith that every receiver knows his assignments -- and can read and react to defensive adjustments on the fly -- just as well as the passer does. A strong arm isn't needed, but an especially accurate one is essential. You don't have to be able to throw the ball through a brick wall, but if you can thread a needle, you can shred even a superior defense.
Because timing is so important, you seldom need to scramble; if the sequence of reads doesn't produce the desired result, "then just check it down to the running back," Collins said. "Clinton [Portis] is catching more passes. I think he realizes it's an easier opportunity for him to make more yards."
For two years in practice and the preseason (in which he had a 97.8 rating in '07), the Redskins watched Collins run the offense crisply, though seldom at full speed with the first team. "We know what he can do," Sellers said, "but we teased him that he was collecting free checks every week. Now he's earning them.
"Reading defenses, calling audibles, trusting everybody and getting the ball to the playmakers -- that's all Todd Collins."
Even Collins's receivers are impressed at how he's seized his opportunity. "Todd is perfect for this system," said Keenan McCardell, who is eighth on the NFL's all-time receptions list. "When you make your cut, the ball is right on you, but nice and catchable. You never see the ball leave his hand. Right now, he's on rhythm. This is the best time of the season for a quarterback to be on fire."
And scorching he is. At times, the passing attack has been so smooth, so oblivious to the existence of the defense, that Collins seems to be playing a private game of catch, even on third and long. Leaving out the Giants game, played in crosswinds that gusted to 50 mph, Collins has completed 59 of 80 passes (73.8 percent) for 722 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions. His passer ratings in those three games have been 144.6, 124.8 and 104.8. In contrast, in 20 career starts, Campbell has two games with ratings better than 100.
Because Collins was preserved in amber for a decade, his body and his confidence are unscarred. His last NFL interception was in 1997. "I was still in high school," Rabach joked.
Coach Joe Gibbs praises Collins's courage in the pocket. Sellers calls him "oblivious to the rush" and a quarterback who always "steps up in the pocket" as he should, rather than drifting side to side.
Of course, perhaps Collins simply can't remember what failure is like and, once reminded, may revert to it. Some passers can "feel pressure" coming from behind from long experience. Collins doesn't. Blindside him and he often fumbles, including twice against Dallas on Sunday. But others do, too. "We have to keep his uniform clean," Rabach said.
The Redskins still maintain publicly that Campbell might, in theory, return if this postseason run goes long enough. The players themselves know better, privately acknowledging that Collins will play out this streak to its conclusion and that Campbell's dislocated kneecap is a serious injury. (I had one long ago. My son had one a few years ago. Forget "four weeks.") "Jason knows," one Redskins veteran said. "He's not going to rush back."
Before next season, the Redskins may have some hard thinking to do, depending on how complete Campbell's recuperation is and how much more success Collins has. But it shouldn't be a forgone conclusion that the quarterback job is Campbell's just because he's 10 years younger. Campbell is the future. But with a veteran team, Collins might be Mr. '08.
The Redskins themselves are evaluating Collins every week. If December games in a playoff run have extra weight, then playoff wins on the road are pure gold in a quarterback's bank. Collins, who will be a free agent after this season, is very close to cashing in. "I don't think Todd wants to go anywhere else," Sellers said. "The management here will give you what you deserve if you deserve it."
So the delicious question hangs in the air: How good is Collins?
"He's real good. And I'm not just boasting on my quarterback," Randle El said. "He's so prepared he's almost over the top with it. If you knew Todd, that's just how he is. I'm not taking anything away from Jason. When he was in, it was happening, too. But Todd has been studying this system for seven years and it shows: 'Let it go early and trust it.' "
Does he remind you of any other quarterback, Randle El was asked.
"That timing and rhythm he has with his receivers, that's like Peyton Manning," said Randle El, without laughing.
Who was that?
"Peyton Manning," he repeated. Again, not even a trace of a smile.
Todd Collins. Peyton Manning. Take your pick. They don't even allow plots this outlandish in bad movies. Savor it while it lasts.