What a Journey, Man

"I don't want to really be the focus of why all the sudden the team is successful," said 36-year-old Todd Collins, who hadn't started an NFL game in a decade. (By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
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By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 5, 2008

A three-sport star in the small town of Walpole, Mass., Todd Collins was one of those high school students whose every move seemed charmed -- from his exploits on the playing field, including leading Walpole High to the state football championships his senior year, to his achievement in honors classes.

So it came as a shock when he went to college at Michigan and was steered to the Wolverines' bench by a coach who told him, "You can learn a lot by watching."

"I remember thinking, 'How do you learn by watching?' " Collins recalled in an interview this week. " 'You actually need to experience it!' "

In 13 years in the NFL, Collins has spent far more time watching than doing. But his performance since taking over as the Washington Redskins' quarterback four weeks ago vindicates that advice.

Still, it's hard to fathom how a 36-year-old journeyman who hadn't started an NFL game in a decade could lead a floundering team to the playoffs by spearheading a four-game winning streak and posting dazzling statistics (five touchdowns, no interceptions and a 106.4 passer rating). Just imagine, for example, a surgeon telling a patient in the operating room: "I haven't wielded a scalpel in 10 years, but don't worry. I've taken a lot of 'mental reps' on this procedure."

There are myriad ways to approach being a backup quarterback. Those who excel when their opportunity comes typically haven't idled while waiting. Instead they've pored over game tape with a coach's eye, memorized game plans, scrounged up receivers to throw to after practice and called countless plays aloud, even if no one but their wife is listening, until they can bark them on reflex.

And it helps when that backup has been steeped in his team's offense for years and been given plays tailored to his ability, a stout offensive line, healthy playmakers and a defense that more than holds its own.

Collins is quick to acknowledge that all those circumstances have worked in his favor since starter Jason Campbell dislocated his kneecap early in the Redskins' game against Chicago on Dec. 6. And he's uneasy about the attention being paid his role in the team's improbable resurgence.

"I don't want to really be the focus of why all the sudden the team is successful," Collins said. "I realize the story is kind of appealing -- that I haven't played in so long. But people are talking about me hitting some of the guys in check downs, and the truth is I can't do that if it's not for the protection. The team as a whole -- including the defense -- is playing outstanding."

But in the view of those who have coached him, practiced alongside him or simply found themselves in similar situations, Collins deserves enormous credit for wringing the most out of his long slog as a backup.

"His continual and unending preparation was amazing," said Trent Green, whom Collins played behind for five seasons in Kansas City. "You want to point to him and tell people, 'This is how to be a pro and how to prepare yourself, whether you're a starter or a backup.' He embodies all of those things."

No one aspires to the role of backup quarterback. Yet approached with the right attitude and given the right circumstances, it can be a blessing -- providing a grace period in which driven athletes can blossom.

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