- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 12, 2006

Life back then was too good to be true for Todd Collins.

He was Michigan’s top student-athlete as a senior. He married his high school sweetheart. At 25, he was given the reins of the Buffalo Bills offense after spending two seasons as the understudy to quarterback Jim Kelly, a cinch for the Hall of Fame.

The fairy-tale existence didn’t last long.

Collins was benched twice during a topsy-turvy 1997 season and cut the next summer by new coach Wade Phillips. He signed the following day with the Kansas City Chiefs but spent the next three seasons as the third-string quarterback behind Elvis Grbac and either Rich Gannon or Warren Moon.

Then came five years watching Trent Green put up big numbers for the Chiefs. In eight seasons, Collins threw only 27 passes.

Collins is 34 now and starting over with a new team, the Washington Redskins. He is battling quarterback of the future Jason Campbell for the right to back up starter Mark Brunell. He also is helping tutor his colleagues in the offense transferred to the Redskins from the Chiefs by new associate head coach Al Saunders.

“I probably wouldn’t have believed that I wouldn’t have started another game, but what are you going to do, quit?” Collins said. “I just try to continue to improve even though the opportunities are few and far between. I was in Kansas City for eight years, and there were two opportunities to replace the starter. In 1998, Elvis got hurt in the first game. I had just been there a week, and Rich went in. And Warren Moon started a game at the end of the year in 2000.”

Collins was never a player on par with the likes of Kelly, Moon or Gannon. Those who know him best, however, believe he could have been a legitimate NFL starter.

“When Todd’s had a chance to play in preseason, he’s been exceptional and he’s always played with the second or third group,” Saunders said. “Todd’s a very accurate passer. With the perimeter people we have, we’re not asking the quarterback to win the game. We’re asking the quarterback to put the ball in the hands of the playmakers. Todd gives us someone who will know where to go with the football, do it in a timely fashion and not take unnecessary chances.

“I would feel very, very confident if Todd was in the huddle.”

Snapper Ethan Albright was in huddles with Collins in Buffalo.

“The Bills had high hopes for Todd,” Albright said. “He was a tall, athletic guy with a strong arm. He showed great promise. But Marv [Levy] left and the new coach wanted his own guys. I was surprised when Todd was cut, but they put big money into [new quarterback] Rob Johnson, and you can’t keep everybody.”

The Bills chose Collins, a fine two-year starter at Michigan, in the second round of the 1995 draft. After backing up Kelly in 1995 and 1996, Collins beat out Alex Van Pelt and Billy Joe Hobert for the starter’s job in 1997 after Kelly retired.

In Week 4 of that season, Buffalo fell behind 26-0 to the Indianapolis Colts at home. Collins didn’t just get booed. The fans cheered for Kelly, sitting in the stands, to un-retire and get back on the field.

“That’s as bad as it gets,” Collins said. “But we turned it around and won [37-35]. I thought we could’ve leapfrogged off that game and had a good year, but we didn’t.”

Five weeks after that victory over the Colts — it was the third-greatest rally in league history — Levy replaced Collins with Van Pelt. Collins started five more games down the stretch, but Levy pulled him again with the Bills trailing the Jacksonville Jaguars 17-6 on Dec. 14.

It would be his last start. Collins finished with 12 touchdowns, 13 interceptions, a 69.5 passer rating and a 5-8 record. Levy retired in January, and Phillips brought in Johnson and Doug Flutie to quarterback the Bills.

“Todd had a very tough act to follow and he didn’t have as good a team as Jim had had during our best years,” Levy said. “Todd was a very bright guy, very focused, a good learner. He prepared well. He still had a ways to go to become a Jim Kelly, but I think people give up too quickly on quarterbacks.

“Look at Steve Young and Brett Favre. Their first teams gave up on them. If I had come back the next year, I would’ve brought Todd back and continued working with him.”

Collins is competing for the No. 2 spot with the Redskins, but the club signed him in the second day of free agency more for his knowledge of Saunders’ system than for his skills. Indeed, Collins has served as a terrific model for Brunell, 35, and Campbell, 24, as they learn the offense.

“Todd has been a huge resource for us as far as drops, reading coverages, knowing what the receivers are going to do,” Brunell said.

Coach Joe Gibbs noted that quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor often turns to Collins for input during positional meetings. Saunders said the fact that Collins is right-handed will help Campbell, who had to learn watching the left-handed Brunell as a rookie.

Watching is what Collins has been doing since McGwire was chasing Maris. That might sound like easy money, but it’s anything but.

“It’s harder being a backup than it is to be a starter because you don’t know when you are going to be called upon,” Saunders said. “It’s like being a pinch hitter. Very few pinch hitters hit .312. But we’re asking the quarterback to come off the bench and hit .312, not knowing when he’s going to go in.

“Todd prepares meticulously each week as if he’s the starter, in the classroom and on the field, and that’s very difficult to do. It’s real easy to say, I’m not going to play so I’m not going to keep up with it. But Todd’s not like that.”

Collins scoffs when people tell him he has the best job in the world, with his two-year, $2.5 million contract to stand on the sideline and watch.

“You compete to be the starter, but I’m not really competing against Mark and Jason,” Collins said. “I just try to play at the level that I know the quarterback in this offense needs to play for it to be effective. Obviously, the Redskins have a lot invested in Jason. They want him to play in the future.”

But who will play if Brunell, soon to be 36, gets hurt, as he did in each of the past five seasons?

As Collins said, the Redskins, who gave up three draft picks for Campbell, want the kid to be the backup. However, Saunders has that longstanding trust in Collins.

One theory holds that Collins would take over if Brunell was hurt during a game, but Campbell would start with a full week to prepare. Campbell could make the argument moot with a strong preseason. However, if he struggles, Collins will be ready.

“You have to stay in tune with the game plan, visualize plays in your mind, do everything you can away from the field to make up for the fact that you don’t take any reps [during the season],” Collins said. “I’ve never entered a game where I didn’t feel like I was ready to play. I still feel like I can be effective. I still enjoy playing. I don’t see any reason to stop.”

The Redskins are glad that he hasn’t stopped.

“Todd’s a pro,” Pro Bowl receiver Santana Moss said after catching a gorgeous bomb from Collins the other day in practice. “He has run this offense so long, I just try to be in the right place for him. Todd throws a soft ball. For him to look this good after playing so little shows you what kind of guy he is. I’m glad he’s here.”

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