A low-key player in the spotlight again
Confident after another career resurrection, Collins is unquestioned leader of the Titans
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Tennessee Titans quarterback Kerry Collins has the ideal situation. As most of the football-watching world wonders when backup quarterback Vince Young will regain his starting job, Collins flies under the radar while preparing to lead the Titans this season.
Many quarterbacks would feel slighted by the lack of attention. Collins feels blessed.
"It really is fine with me," Collins said during a recent interview. "That's because I'm pretty simple. I just like coming to work and doing my job."
That attitude is one of the main reasons the Titans -- who visit the defending champion Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday in the 2009 NFL regular-season opener -- should be feeling good about their own title hopes this fall. While one quarterback (Young) is trying to figure out how to be a dependable leader again, another one (Collins) is showing his teammates exactly how it is done. Collins clearly realizes that Young still has a chance to be the future of that franchise. But the only thing that Collins needs to worry about is reminding the Titans why he earned the starting job in the first place.
Let's face it: Nobody saw Collins coming last season. The 15-year veteran took over when Young sustained a knee injury in the 2008 season opener and remained there after off-the-field drama kept Young sidelined indefinitely. In the end, Collins led the Titans to a 13-3 regular-season record and the AFC South title. He also played well enough to earn a two-year, $15 million contract after making a trip to the Pro Bowl.
Now comes the easy part -- going into a season with the clear understanding that this is his team.
"The biggest difference between this year and last year is that I've got more confidence," Collins said. "The guys know who's going to be in there and there aren't any questions about it. Plus, it helps to get all that work with the first team. There's just more familiarity and trust and that helps how you prepare."
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Collins clearly understands what it's going to take to make this season more special than the 2008 campaign, which ended with an upset playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens. He lost so much weight -- going from 245 to 235 pounds -- that Titans coaches actually encouraged him to regain some of that bulk. He also returned to Nashville 10 days before the start of training camp so he could have more time to study the offense. Last year, when Young was the starter, Collins reported to camp a day early because he wanted to spend more time with his family before two-a-days.
That extra effort should be invaluable this season because the Titans plan on opening up their offense. While they won't exactly ignore the strong backfield tandem of Chris Johnson and LenDale White, they will expect Collins to attack defenses that load up on stopping the run.
As Titans coach Jeff Fisher said: "Last year we had one team -- and I won't say who -- that played us with four linemen, four linebackers and three defensive backs on the field. So we just threw the ball then, and we'll make sure teams pay if they try that this year."
One thing Fisher won't have to worry about with Collins is the kind of drama that led to Young's permanent seat on the sidelines last year. When reports surfaced that Young couldn't handle the booing he received from home fans in the 2008 season opener -- and that he reportedly refused to re-enter that game before injuring his knee -- it tainted the former Texas star's reputation in ways he might never overcome. Collins, however, has a much easier time letting go of negative moments. For example, when he threw a tipped pass that resulted in an interception in a recent preseason game, he actually chuckled over his bad luck while jogging back to the sideline.
It's easy to see how that mindset developed in Collins, a Pennsylvania native and former star at Penn State.
This is a 36-year-old man who's seen it all. The 1995 first-round draft pick's career with the Carolina Panthers soared initially but eventually flamed out. Collins endured disputes with teammates and was eventually released from the team. After a stint with the New Orleans Saints, he became the resurrected leader of a New York Giants team that reached the Super Bowl during the 2000 season. Later, he seemed to be a beaten-down journeyman so frustrated by his two seasons with the Oakland Raiders that he seriously contemplated retirement. When you endure that many ups and downs, you learn how to deal with life in the league.
"I've definitely learned how to focus on what's important and to not worry about things that are down the road," Collins said.
Added Titans offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger: "I think Kerry is happy to have this opportunity after all the things he's been through. And he probably appreciates it more than he did the first time he had a chance to play in this league. He can still play and he's going to do some good things for us."
What the Titans are hoping is that Collins helps them prove that last year wasn't a fluke. Sure, Tennessee will be without some key faces from 2008, including Pro Bowl defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth (who signed a free-agent deal with Washington) and defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz (who is now the Detroit Lions' head coach). But defense rarely has been an issue for this organization. As for the offense, that could've easily been a source of constant controversy if Fisher hadn't named Collins as his starter during the offseason.
That doesn't mean Young is finished, because Fisher said: "Vince is here and he'll be our starter at some point."
It just means the Titans understand who gives them the best chance to compete for a championship these days. That would be the man who doesn't get nearly as much attention as his backup does right now. That also would be the man who's quite happy to be playing under those kinds of circumstances.
Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
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