Awkward Moments Are Lessons Learned for the Understudy

The Redskins continue preparations for the regular season by clipping the Buffalo Bills, 17-14, in their second preseason game Saturday at FedEx Field.
By Jason La Canfora
Sunday, August 10, 2008

As he stood behind center last night, scanning the line of scrimmage, the names and numbers glaring back were eerily unfamiliar. The security that comes with operating behind No. 60 Samuels, No. 61 Rabach and No. 77 Thomas, was, well, a luxury for someone else to enjoy. And Todd Collins's evening figured to grow a bit more peculiar.

The veteran backup quarterback, the toast of the town as recently as January, is now a work in progress. And with his second-string status behind Jason Campbell comes certain occupational hazards, such as relying on a preponderance of novice linemen to keep his 36-year-old legs planted firmly on the ground against the Buffalo Bills in a preseason game at FedEx Field.

No longer the prized pupil of the Redskins' offense -- Collins had spent eight years mastering former offensive coordinator Al Saunders's infinite playbook -- he is feeling his way through Coach Jim Zorn's system, same as everyone else. It's an inherently awkward process: Collins bristled at some of Zorn's unorthodox drills and teaching tools this offseason, team sources said, and struggled in the opening weeks of training camp.

Those uncomfortable moments -- the errant passes, the miscommunication with young receivers -- have played out in relative privacy, with Collins's public image still buttressed by his performance in leading the Redskins, 17-14 victors last night, to four straight wins and a playoff berth last season. But on these summer evenings all is on display, and the growing pains are apparent.

In Zorn's perfect world, Campbell would blossom over 16 games, retaining his starting job with ease, and Collins would be a handsomely compensated insurance policy. But that's not the reality of the NFL. Chances are, Collins, entering his 14th season, will be called upon at some point -- whether for a play or a quarter or weeks on end -- and with only rookies behind him on the depth chart, Collins's adjustment to the West Coast offense bears monitoring.

While Collins's stat line from last Sunday's game reads as if Saunders was still pulling the strings (5 of 6 for 32 yards), he held the ball too long at times, absorbed two sacks and evoked no memories of 2007.

Last night Collins played the second quarter, and guys like Justin Geisinger, Tavares Washington and Devin Clark were blocking for him. With tackles Todd Wade and Stephon Heyer injured, guard Jason Fabini was the only lineman with any real NFL experience on the second-string line. But the unit overcame its lack of cohesion and savvy and Collins, despite his general immobility, was not hurried.

Collins's two drives provided flashes of what he does best -- he was cool in the pocket, able to find secondary targets -- but was hardly seamless. He engineered an eight play, 65-yard touchdown drive, capped by a 12-yard toss to tailback Ladell Betts, though twice Washington had to burn timeouts on the march, leaving the Redskins out of timeouts with 10 minutes still left in the half.

"One time I got the play in late to Todd," Zorn said, "and the other time we had some confusion as to who was in the personnel group."

Collins returned in the two-minute offense and was intercepted, which led to a score. Two receivers hovered in the vicinity of the pass, but the ball sailed over the head of Maurice Mann; Billy McMullen was five yards deeper downfield and was the intended target, Zorn said. But McMullen cut inside and the ball tailed outside, to Buffalo's Ashton Youboty.

"It might have been misfired, or there may have been a little confusion," Collins said. "We'll look at it on film." That concession alone is a novelty for Collins after so many years as the embodiment of Saunders's offensive philosophy.

"The ball got a bit away from Todd," said Zorn, candid in evaluating his players. "I was frustrated and I know Todd was frustrated It deeply hurt us, because that's when [the Bills] went in" to tie the score at 14.

Collins and McMullen chatted about the miscue on the sidelines, and the likelihood of that duo having to duplicate that route in the regular season is slight, given all the receivers ahead of McMullen on the depth chart. Collins finished 8 for 11 for 77 yards, and gauging the efficiency of any preseason performance is tricky, especially on second and third teams.

But the idea of any sort of competition between Collins and Campbell -- as posited by some in these parts (but never anyone actually inside Redskins Park) -- already seems foolish, and to give Campbell anything less than a full season to prove his worth marginalizes the future of the franchise.

Likewise, to expect Collins to duplicate last winter's heroics for an extended period of time may be wishful thinking, especially considering the offensive upheaval since then. At this stage of his career, Collins is well suited to a caretaker's role, but asking him to withstand eight, or 10 or 16 weeks of punishment is a gamble few NFL executives would take.

The market spoke this offseason, with Jacksonville Collins's other strongest suitor, and then only as a backup to David Garrard. After going 10 years between starts, then resuscitating his career with a glorious December, there is no shame in playing understudy to Campbell now.

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