Collins disaster could help Cam Newton

Kerry Collins -- the Panthers first "franchise" quarterback -- had off-the-field issues in Charlotte. Andy Lyons /Allsport

In the months before the 1995 draft, the throwing motion of Penn State quarterback Kerry Collins came under intense scrutiny. Supposedly, Collins had a hitch somewhere in the middle of his motion.

As it turned out, Collins never had any problems throwing. The problems were everywhere else.

When the expansion Carolina Panthers used the fifth overall pick on Collins, he started down a treacherous path in which the team’s first “franchise’’ quarterback would drink his way out of Charlotte. Collins, unavailable for comment, has talked openly many times about the Carolina days, typically emphasizing he was the root of his problems there.

It’s no wonder then that the Panthers have not used a first-round pick on a quarterback since Collins. Scarred by his demise, the franchise has for more than a decade tried to get by with veterans such as Steve Beuerlein and Jake Delhomme.

But the NFL has become more of a passing league, and coming off a 2-14 season, the Panthers realize it is time once again to target a franchise quarterback. They hold the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, and all indications are they’re ready to take the plunge on Auburn’s Cam Newton, who may or may not come with a hitch or two of his own.

Let’s be clear: Newton's issues are much, much different than Collins’, but they’re still issues when you're talking about a franchise quarterback. Newton comes with questions about background and character and whether he’ll be able to adjust to an NFL offense after running a different attack in college.

The Panthers' coaching staff has changed several times over and so has the front office since Collins was drafted in 1995. But Jerry Richardson has been the owner from the start and you can bet that the Panthers are looking back at Collins’ downfall, analyzing what went wrong and thinking about what they can do better to make life easier for Newton and enhance his chances for success if they draft him.

“We know anybody we take, franchise quarterback or another position, you have to have a support plan in place because it’s such a difficult task coming in as a rookie,’’ Carolina general manager Marty Hurney said.

Hurney admitted he has thought extensively about a support system to help Newton if the Panthers draft him at No. 1. He didn’t want to detail the plan. But the Panthers might be wise to use the Collins fiasco as a guide.

“We did our homework on Kerry as thoroughly as possible,’’ said one person who worked in Carolina’s personnel department in the early years. “...Yeah, there might have been rumblings Kerry was something like a frat boy who liked to have fun, but there were no screaming red flags.’’

In talking to numerous people who were with the Panthers at the time, there were not any major problems in Collins’ first two years. With team president Mike McCormack, general manager Bill Polian and coach Dom Capers running the show, the initial plan was to bring Collins along slowly.

The Panthers brought in veteran Frank Reich to serve as a mentor and a bridge. But the bridge collapsed. Reich bombed in three starts and a team that had the luxury of a built-in honeymoon period got impatient and threw Collins into the starting lineup.

He started 13 games, the Panthers went a somewhat-surprising 7-9 and the next season Collins and Charlotte partied. With a very good defense and Collins leading an efficient offense, the Panthers went all the way to the NFC Championship Game, where they lost to the Packers. They came back to Charlotte after losing in Green Bay and Collins stood on the steps of Bank of America Stadium and proclaimed the Panthers would win Super Bowls and become a "dynasty."

Those were heady times in a city that was new to the NFL, and doors around town were open to Collins. It was at that time he started falling through a trap door. The future was so bright, Collins had to wear shades -- for all the wrong reasons.

Every person interviewed for this story said the signs of Collins having a problem began showing in the run to the NFC title game and expanded rapidly in the months that followed.

On the final night of 1997 training camp, reports -- which Collins never has disputed -- said the quarterback was out at a Spartanburg, S.C., bar when he hurled racial slurs at two teammates. One, offensive lineman Norberto Garrido, reportedly got into a physical altercation with Collins.

“We got back to Charlotte to check into the team hotel the night before a preseason game and Kerry was walking around inside with sunglasses,’’ said one person who was with the team at the time. “He was coming out of a meeting room later and he took them off for just a second to wipe his eye and you could see a big shiner. I was like, 'Oh no, what did he do now?’'"

That sentiment echoed throughout the building for more than a year. In a 2003 interview, I asked Capers, then the coach of the Houston Texans, if the Panthers did all they could to get Collins under control. Capers sighed and then said the Panthers did everything you’d expect and much more. He also said Collins simply refused help.

People who were with the team at that time said that’s all true. Speaking days before leading the New York Giants against the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XXXV, Collins admitted he was in denial at the time and summed up his flawed philosophy.

“I’ll show you. I’ll hurt me,’’ Collins said.

Collins hurt more than himself. With McCormack retired, Polian gone and Capers running essentially a one-man show in 1998, things got worse. After four ugly games, Capers told the media that Collins said his heart no longer was in the game and had quit the team.

“I’m not sure the interventions you see and hear so much about today were legal or even done at that time,’’ a former team employee said. “But I can assure you that organization did at least everything else. I mean, we had Donnie Shell [the former NFL safety who was the team’s longtime director of player programs], the team chaplain, the coaches, his teammates and ownership all over Kerry to straighten up. If Mike and Bill weren’t gone, maybe things could have worked out better or been handled better, but I seriously doubt it.’’

The Panthers released Collins, who then signed with New Orleans and got arrested for drunk driving when the Saints came to Charlotte to play a game later that season. Collins went to the Giants in 1999 and stopped drinking. He revived his career and has had a productive run with the Giants, Raiders and Titans.

Collins is 38 now and started seven games for Tennessee last year. He has patched up relationships with just about everyone who was involved with the Panthers in those dreadful days.

It makes you wonder what could have been. If things had gone differently, maybe Collins still would be with the Panthers, maybe they would have won Super Bowls and become a dynasty.

Maybe they’d still be drafting Newton. But maybe it would be to replace one franchise quarterback with another. The reality is the saga caused enormous problems for the Panthers.

But, hey, maybe one old wound can help prevent a new one.