After Wednesday morning’s workout, Todd Collins peeled off his shoulder pads and played catch with Derek Devine, one of the rookie quarterbacks in the Redskins‘ training camp. It was just a brief throwing session, the two sweaty passers lobbing the ball back and forth as their teammates headed for the air-conditioned locker room.
And what priceless lesson was Collins imparting to this kid who would love to have his job?
“We were just working on turning the ball over,” he said, “having the point come down [so it’s easier for the receiver to catch]. I enjoy doing that. I remember being a rookie myself and how hard it was at first. You’re used to being The Guy, and now you’re in there for two or three plays and expected to perform. It’s important not to get down about things, to just keep working.”
That last sentence pretty much summarizes his NFL career. Collins has spent the better part of 14 seasons trying not to get discouraged, doing his due diligence while waiting for a chance to play. When it finally came last December, after Jason Campbell went down, he became one of the feel-good stories of 2007, leading the Redskins to four straight wins and an improbable playoff berth.
Six months later, though, Collins has returned to his role as Campbell’s insurance policy. He’s kinda like Eddie Murphy in “The Nutty Professor”; he got to be Buddy Love, babe magnet, for five weeks, and now he’s back to being Sherman Klump, the unassuming college prof.
“It is strange,” he agreed - almost as if the whirlwind end to last season (and the loss to the Seahawks that extinguished the Redskins’ Super Bowl hopes) never happened. “Usually when I come to training camp, I didn’t even throw a pass the year before - or maybe five or 10. But I find myself thinking: Hey, I actually played last year.”
Did he ever. He didn’t throw a single interception in 105 regular-season attempts, not even on a windy night against the Giants that resembled the British Open. It was arguably the best stretch of quarterbacking in Joe Gibbs’ second term, as good as any month Mark Brunell ever had. Collins showed everybody how Al Saunders’ vaunted offense was supposed to work - but only occasionally did when others were operating it.
Still, it wasn’t in the cards for him to remain the starter in ‘08. The Redskins are committed to Campbell, the former first-round pick, and besides, Collins will be 37 in November. But he won’t be a high-mileage 37, not at all. In fact, it’s astounding how many quarterbacks his age - say, 35 and over - were still playing last season, several of them quite well.
You had 38-year-old Brett Favre getting the Packers within a game of the Super Bowl. You had 37-year-old Jeff Garcia taking the Bucs to the NFC South title. You had Collins rescuing the Redskins. You had 36-year-old Kurt Warner throwing 27 touchdown passes for the Cardinals. In all, nine QBs 35 and older started at least one game; 20 years earlier, only two did (and neither went to the playoffs).
There are any number of explanations for this - improved fitness, the increasing complexity of the position, more teams (32 instead of 28) dipping into the talent pool. And here’s another, offered by Jim Zorn: “You seem to have more of a sense of calmness with these older guys. There’s a lot of chaos out there on that field. I just think head coaches and offensive coordinators trust them more.”
Then, too, quarterbacks aren’t exactly decathletes. As Collins puts it, “You have to maintain some kind of arm strength, but if you lose a step, well, I never really had one in the first place. It’s not like we’re out here having to beat cornerbacks every day.
“Whenever I think I’m old, I remind myself that I was in [the Chiefs’] camp one summer with Warren Moon the year he turned 43. He went through all the two-a-days, never took a day off - just amazing.”
What Collins did with the Redskins last season - playing at such a high level after being virtually inactive for a decade - is also amazing. He could hardly be blamed for exploring his free agent options over the winter, but it didn’t take him long to decide the Redskins (and their three-year, $9 million offer) made the most sense.
The best thing to come out of this, aside from the financial security, might be that his career is no longer a blank page. As he walked off the field Wednesday, fans called out his name, begged him to come over and sign autographs - which he dutifully did. He may be a backup quarterback again, but he has given Redskins Nation something to remember, fondly.
Dan Daly has been writing about sports for the Washington Times since 1982. He has won numerous national and local awards, appears regularly in NFL Films’ historical features and is the co-author of “The Pro Football Chronicle,” a decade-by-decade history of the game. Follow Dan on Twitter at @dandalyonsports –- or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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