Reflecting on Kerry Collins' Carolina time

It was very quiet while I was off last week, but there was one story with NFC South roots that deserves some reflection here.

Quarterback Kerry Collins retired from the Tennessee Titans. Collins played for the Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints before there even was an NFC South. Collins’ time in New Orleans was short and uneventful.

But his time in Carolina was anything but dull. Carolina’s first draft pick in its expansion season, 1995, Collins quickly became the starter and took the Panthers to the NFC Championship Game in his second season. After the Panthers returned from that trip to Green Bay, Collins stood on the steps of what is now Bank of America Stadium and talked about how Carolina would be a dynasty.

It didn’t work out anywhere close to that. Collins began having problems soon after that and was gone before the midway point of the 1998 season. Collins repeatedly has admitted he had a drinking problem in his Carolina days and that issue isolated him from some of his teammates.

Collins deserves lots of credit for straightening out his life when he joined the New York Giants and he took that franchise to a Super Bowl. He also spent time with the Oakland Raiders and Tennessee Titans and ended his career with more than 40,000 passing yards, which ranks him No. 11 in history. The numbers could have been better if Collins didn’t spend part of his career as a backup.

You can’t call Collins’ career a flop or a disappointment, but those terms can be used to describe his stint in Carolina. Or you can just call it what it was -- a disaster that set the franchise back for years. I arrived in Charlotte and began covering the Panthers a little less than a year after Collins left. The wounds were still fresh and stories were still making the rounds about Collins’ wild nights on the town and wilder parties at his house.

Collins had to go because he had some major problems and was in denial as the Panthers tried to get him help. But you can’t help but wonder what might have happened for Collins and the Panthers if he had gotten help earlier or avoided his problems in the first place.

The guy was an amazing talent -- big and strong with one of the best throwing arms of his generation. I’ve been a life-long Penn State fan and Collins was so talented he convinced Joe Paterno to scrap his conservative offense. In 1994, Penn State had one of the nation’s best offenses with Collins, Ki-Jana Carter, Bobby Engram and Kyle Brady. The Lions went undefeated, but got robbed of a national championship.

Collins went straight to the NFL and started living like a rock star. If he hadn’t, he could have been what Atlanta’s Matt Ryan and Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman probably will be -- a franchise quarterback who will spend his entire career with one team.

Imagine what Collins could have been if he spent his entire career in Carolina and lived his life the way he did in later years? I’m not sure the Panthers would have been the dynasty Collins talked about. That expansion team was built around veterans and it got old right after the NFC Championship Game. There still might have been some ups and downs, but Collins had stayed on the straight and narrow, the valleys the Panthers hit wouldn’t have been nearly as deep. He was young, talented, should have continued to get better and the Panthers could have had a franchise quarterback for a generation.

If Collins didn’t implode, Dom Capers wouldn’t have been fired after the 1998 season and George Seifert never would have been hired. It took years for the Panthers to recover and, for years, they stayed away from drafting quarterbacks early or signing big-name free agents at that position.

Seifert got a couple good years from Steve Beuerlein and then put him on the scrap heap for no apparent reason. Chris Weinke was next and he never really had a chance. He played on Seifert’s last team, which went 1-15.

When John Fox took over in 2002, he needed to get wins quickly and didn’t want to let Weinke develop on the field, so he went out and got Rodney Peete, who I think might have been offensive coordinator Dan Henning’s college roommate. A year later, the Panthers went out and signed career backup Jake Delhomme and made him the starter. Delhomme had a nice run and even took the Panthers to a Super Bowl. He was the best quarterback in franchise history, but wasn’t a franchise quarterback. He was a nice game manager.

The Panthers drafted Jimmy Clausen last year and Cam Newton this year and there’s hope that one of those guys can become the first true franchise quarterback in Carolina history. Collins could -- and should -- have been that guy. If Collins had done things the right way in Carolina, the dark days at the end of the Capers era and the entire Seifert era never would have happened.

If Collins had still been there when Fox arrived, he would have fit nicely in the system and the Panthers might not have been quite so conservative. Heck, if things had gone differently, Collins could have spent his entire career in Carolina and Fox still might be coaching there.

Collins could have been the most popular athlete ever in Charlotte and, had he stayed, he might still be playing. He could have even spent this year as a mentor to Newton and Clausen. Instead, they’ll be trying to become what Collins never was able to become for the Panthers.