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.
Steve Bono, a sixth-round pick in the 1985 NFL draft, had an undistinguished four years as a backup with the Minnesota Vikings and Pittsburgh Steelers. But after signing with the San Francisco 49ers, who ran the sort of timing-based offense he'd learned at UCLA, he found new confidence. Though third on the depth chart, Bono had future Hall of Famers Joe Montana and Steve Young to study and emulate.
"It was absolutely valuable time -- a time for me to learn and develop," said Bono, who started his first game for San Francisco midway through the 1991 season after Montana was lost for the year and Young got hurt. He stepped in and finished 5-1. "It really proves how long the learning curve is to become a successful NFL quarterback."
The biggest challenge for many backups is not losing confidence while they're waiting for the chance to prove their skills.
"That's probably the most difficult thing," said Al Saunders, the Redskins' associate head coach-offense. "The frustration of knowing that you could perform at a very high level and not having that opportunity."
Green, who spent six seasons as a backup in San Diego, the Canadian Football League and Washington (including one year out of football entirely), said his driving force was shaking the tag of being an eighth-round draft pick and third-string material.
As is typical of third quarterbacks in the NFL, Green was charged with running the scout team when he was with the Redskins and got no work with the first team. So after practice each day, he'd round up young receivers and spend 20 minutes running through the plays the starters had run. Then, once he got home, he'd give his wife, Julie, the script of all the plays run in practice so she could call them out, one by one, as they made dinner. She'd call a play, and he'd tell her what his progression was. It kept his mind sharp, he said, and it gave him more practice with the arcane language of play-calling.
"If you're called on, you've got to be able to step into the huddle and make a call," Green said. "It may sound simple. But when you talk about the terminology that's used, it's really a second language. And if you're not using that second language, it tends to leave you."
Joe Theismann, who supplanted Billy Kilmer as the Redskins' starter in 1978, said that calling plays with authority is essential -- and that includes inflection and body language.
"In a huddle sometimes it's hard to hear, so guys look in your eyes and read your lips," Theismann said. "You can tell, looking in a quarterback's eyes, whether he's nervous or unsure, or whether he's saying, 'Don't worry, guys! I've got this!' "
Once he wrested the starter's job from Kilmer, Theismann did his best to keep it -- partly by making sure his backups never got work in practice. "I never let somebody else take a snap," Theismann said. "Number one, I wanted to see as much as I could during practice in every drill. Number two, if the second quarterback didn't work, the coach had no idea how good or bad he was. It's called 'job security.' "
In Collins's case, after flaming out as Jim Kelly's successor in Buffalo, he had the dubious fortune of landing in Kansas City, where Green, the starter, stayed healthy for five seasons. Under Dick Vermeil's regimented system, backup quarterbacks got no work with the first-team offense once the season started. So when the first-team offense wasn't on the field during practice, quarterbacks coach Terry Shea would take Collins to an adjacent field to run through the practice script. Shea would call out each play, and Collins would repeat it, with all the shifts and motion. A weight coach would snap the ball, and Collins would drop back, take the required number of steps, visualize a defense and fire the ball to wherever Shea had positioned himself.
Collins and Green shared the same zeal for preparation. Their lockers were side by side, and they routinely drilled each other on reading defenses. "What are we doing against cover-6?" "What about cover-4?"
So it was hardly surprising that Saunders brought Collins to Washington when he left Kansas City to joins Joe Gibbs's staff. In no time, the Redskins' starters took note of Collins's command of the offense.
His playbook was crammed with notes. And he studied it during every flight while others played cards or watched a movie. He'd memorize the game plan. And during practice he watched the starting offense like a hawk, interrupting to make corrections if a formation was wrong -- often before coaches or players realized anything was awry.
"When you've only been taking mental reps for 10 years, it's kind of easy, I would imagine, to have your mind think about the deer poking its nose through the woods," said offensive lineman Pete Kendall. "But he was intently focused on every play. The question for everybody was, was it going to translate?"
It was an open question.
Plenty of unheralded backups had found success when thrust in the starter's role, including Kurt Warner, Marc Bulger and Green himself. Yet top prospects with all the skill in the world, such as Heath Shuler, picked third overall in the 1994 draft, had not.
"The one variable you can't control is how is that player going to respond when the lights are on," Green said. "Can he make everything slow down when a guy is two yards way and about to break him in half? Can he stay calm enough to make the throw? I would watch Heath practice and say, 'This guy is going to be a Pro Bowl player!' He had all the tools, the physical ability to make all the throws, and he spent time preparing. But when the lights went on, it never slowed down for him."
When Campbell got injured against Chicago, it took Collins a moment to absorb what had happened after all those years of waiting and wondering whether his chance had come each time a quarterback was slow to get up after a hit.
But he stepped onto FedEx Field. He knew the offense cold. The calls tumbled out of his mouth. And he'd seen enough football in those 13 years to know he wasn't going to win the game with one single throw.
"It is frustrating," Collins said of his long apprenticeship. "But what I wanted to do was just prepare myself, if I ever did get the shot, to be ready. Then, as the years piled up, I didn't want to let those years go to waste. I didn't want to have those regrets. I just wanted to reach my potential and be able to go out there and play up to my ability."