Career backup Collins steps in seamlessly to lead Redskins

Washington's new starting QB, Todd Collins, "is perfect for Joe Gibbs, just perfect," said Dan Henning, a former Gibbs assistant who also knows Collins from their days together in Buffalo. Win McNamee/Getty Images

The Washington Redskins took time this week to assure Jason Campbell that he remains their quarterback for the long term.

The bigger news was that the organization felt compelled to do so.
Todd Collins has been that good while leading the Redskins to four victories and a date with Seattle in the NFC playoffs Saturday.

"Who would've dreamed?" Redskins coach Joe Gibbs said.

Collins, who hadn't started an NFL game in a decade, has five touchdown passes, no interceptions and a 3-0 starting record since a knee injury felled Campbell during a 24-16 victory over Chicago on Dec. 6.

The Redskins had lost four consecutive games and six of eight before Collins came off the bench to complete 15 of 20 passes for 224 yards and two touchdowns against the Bears.

"It was unbelievable," Redskins cornerback Shawn Springs said.

For Collins, 36, the time and place are finally right.

A second-round draft choice from Michigan in 1995, Collins entered the NFL as a potential successor to Jim Kelly in Buffalo. But the Bills were in transition offensively even before Kelly retired in 1996. Their offensive line was declining. Coach Marv Levy's tenure was nearing its end. The front office, desperate to find a leader with Kelly's charisma, whiffed badly in a trade that brought free spirit Billy Joe Hobert from Oakland for a third-round pick.

Collins started 13 games for the Bills in 1997, tossing 12 touchdowns with 13 interceptions as Buffalo threatened NFL records for offensive futility. Hobert came off the bench in one game, only to admit he hadn't prepared because he never expected to play. Alex Van Pelt started the meaningless final game.

The Bills could have used better quarterback play that season, no question, but their problems ran deeper.

The season came and went, and then Collins mysteriously disappeared -- as though workers at Rich Stadium had plowed him into a snow bank following the 1997 season, putting his career on ice.

In truth, Collins spent eight seasons in Kansas City warming up before games, but never starting them. When he finally decided to try his luck elsewhere, signing with Washington in 2006, the Chiefs' immediately lost quarterback Trent Green after 81 consecutive regular-season starts.

"The first game Todd is gone, Trent goes down with a possibly season-ending injury," said Chiefs quarterback Damon Huard, Collins' good friend and former teammate. "He would joke with me like, 'Good God, Damon, looks like I made the right decision coming to Washington.'"

Every backup quarterback knows his turn will come eventually if he can hang around long enough. It's the nature of the position. NFL teams used more than 60 starters this season, including 44-year-old Vinny Testaverde. Collins waited longer than most, but the reward has been sweet.

"This is great," Collins told reporters this week. "I'm just taking it one day at a time, though, just one game at a time. I'm not trying to get too caught up."

That's as colorful as a Collins quote tends to get, but the Redskins weren't looking for the next Joe Theismann. They needed someone who knew the offense and knew how to lead a veteran team.

Dan Henning, a former Gibbs assistant who served as Buffalo's offensive coordinator when Collins was the starter, sees parallels to the role Earl Morrall played for the unbeaten 1972 Miami Dolphins. Morrall, 38 when the season started, led the Dolphins to 12 of their 17 victories after starter Bob Griese was injured.

"There is a steadiness about that type of guy, and there is a steadiness about Todd Collins that is hard to put your finger on," Henning said.

Collins once led the Bills from a 26-0 deficit to a 37-35 victory during a 1997 game against Indianapolis. He helped that Bills team get to 4-3 before struggling and losing the starting job twice in the season's second half. The Bills finished 6-10, Levy retired and the franchise sought new answers at quarterback.

Collins went quietly to Kansas City.

"One of his shortcomings might have been that he never rocked the boat more to get another shot," Henning said. "That is his nature. He is a very compatible guy to the team, he is easy to coach, I never heard a word of discord from him.

Did you ever see the movie 'A Beautiful Mind?' This is literally Todd Collins.

--Damon Huard, Kansas City Chiefs QB and former teammate of Todd Collins

"He is perfect for Joe Gibbs, just perfect. That is exactly what Joe looks for and obviously he's right for that offensive coach, too."

Collins learned offensive coordinator Al Saunders' famously thick playbook when the two were together in Kansas City. Huard still marvels at his former teammate's total recall.

"Did you ever see the movie 'A Beautiful Mind?' This is literally Todd Collins," Huard said. "You could give this guy Al Saunders' 350 plays on a piece of paper and he would read that game plan over, take it home that night and the next day you could ask him about a play and he will give you the personnel, the shift, the movement and the formation for every one of them.

"He can go back in time and remember everything about a conversation, where we were and what we were doing. He's just brilliant."

Raised in Massachusetts, where he graduated from Walpole High School in 1990, Collins became a student of American history at a young age. He majored in political science at Michigan, once telling a Detroit Free Press reporter, "I've walked the Freedom Trail in Boston, and I'm into the Old State House, North Church and the Boston Tea Party."

Among other things.

He can come up with any type of stat off the top of his head," Springs said. "He might start talking to you about protein or something. You never know what Todd is talking about. He might start talking to you about the stock market or something like that. And then I thought he had said a funny joke, but his face was so serious, you don't know if he's joking."

Public health issues apparently rank high on Collins' agenda.

He smells the first football he throws at practice. He'll grab it, bring it right by his face, smell the ball, then throw it. Every game plan, every newspaper you hand him, before he reads it, he smells it. Instinctively.

--Damon Huard on Todd Collins

"If you are walking with him down the hall, he's going to make sure you get ahead of him so you can open the door and touch the door handle," Huard said. "Because he knows the door handle has 9,000 molecules of germs and is the second-dirtiest place in a building next to an elevator button. He'll tell you all of that."

A connoisseur of fine wines, Collins seems to enjoy sniffing a 100-point cabernet as much as he enjoys drinking one, perhaps even more. But his nose doesn't stop there.

"He smells everything," Huard said. "He smells the first football he throws at practice. He'll grab it, bring it right by his face, smell the ball, then throw it.

"Every game plan, every newspaper you hand him, before he reads it, he smells it. Instinctively. He has this nose and palate. He remembers the smell of every wine."

Years ago, after a rough final season in Buffalo, Collins attempted to sniff the rarified air atop Mt. Kilimanjaro, turning back near the summit only after experiencing severe altitude sickness. He'll be closer to sea level at Seattle's Qwest Field, starting a playoff game for one of the NFL's flagship franchises.

Who would've dreamed?

Mike Sando covers the NFL for ESPN.com.