By Marc Carig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 7, 2008
During an eight-year span spent in two NFL cities, Todd Collins devoted himself to mastering Al Saunders's complex offense, learning each of the playbook's 700 pages front and back, growing into the system's most diligent scholar even though he rarely enjoyed the chance to put the knowledge into practice.
Last December, when quarterback Jason Campbell suffered a season-ending knee injury, the Redskins reaped the benefits of Collins's devotion when the quarterback led Washington to a playoff berth.
Less than a year later, Collins has returned to obscurity. "That's fine," said Collins, whose lack of practice underscores his diminished status. "I've been in a support role for a long time and I don't see myself as a guy that craves the attention, or wants it."
After his remarkable run last season, the world around Collins shifted, eventually taking away what had become a comfort zone. Campbell healed from his injury and assumed his position as the franchise quarterback. Saunders, the Redskins' former assistant head coach-offense, took his playbook and left town, along with former head coach Joe Gibbs. Gibbs's replacement, Jim Zorn, installed a West Coast offensive scheme foreign to the veteran Collins.
At age 37, Collins was forced to start over.
"It was different, really different," Campbell said. "He was in that one system for like [eight] years. It was a big adjustment this offseason to have to learn a new offense, especially at that stage of his career."
Collins, a 14-year veteran, relearned the most basic aspects of his job, retooling his footwork and adjusting the way he goes through progressions on pass plays. If he had any complaints, Campbell said, Collins kept them to himself.
Aside from learning something new, Collins said a big part of the challenge was simply readying himself to accept new ideas, a task made tougher because Saunders's offense had become so ingrained in him during his time with the coach, first with the Kansas City Chiefs and later with the Redskins.
"It's not a lot of fun going through it because most people don't want to change," Collins said. "It's easier to stay the same."
Collins chose to take on the challenge. A free agent this offseason, Collins briefly considered leaving Washington in hopes of landing a starting job. But even after Collins had rescued the Redskins' season a year ago, interest in him was limited to those clubs seeking backups.
When Collins expressed interest in returning to Washington as Campbell's backup, the Redskins reciprocated. Owner Daniel Snyder made retaining Collins an offseason priority, and the newly hired Zorn traveled to the quarterback's Massachusetts home in hopes of bringing him back.
"It always feels good to be wanted," said Collins, who was rewarded with a three-year, $9 million contract that included a $3 million signing bonus. "It's better than the alternative. They knew that I wanted to come back, that I didn't have a better opportunity somewhere else. We kind of finished strong here last year and I think we have a good team with some good guys. Why change?"
To stay, however, the quarterback had to do exactly that. In some cases, the outcome has not been pretty, as evidenced by Collins's preseason struggles.
Since then, Collins has worked to close his knowledge gap by focusing on the offense's smallest details. He often spends quarterback meetings asking questions, in hopes of gleaning information to make the process easier.
"Todd is a true professional in every sense of the word, in how he prepares, how he studies, in how he watches film," said offensive assistant Chris Meidt, who helps Zorn oversee the Redskins' quarterbacks.
With each week, Collins said watching the offense at work has helped him reach new levels of understanding, that he can now see how "things fit together." Collins said it has helped him break free from the old ideas, and embrace the new ones.
"When you're in that offense for a while, you believe in those techniques," he said. "So now, you change and do them a different way, and you realize that there's more than one way of doing it. And you've got to conform to that."