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Inside the NFL
Posted: Wednesday October 28, 1998 01:33 PM
Starting Over | Trying to
Escape LT's Shadow | Gentlemen, Start Your Firing
By Peter King
Kerry Collins has a fresh outlook on football as he settles in as a Saint
Last Saturday, as the Saints showered and dressed after a light morning workout, backup quarterback Danny Wuerffel snuck over to starter Billy Joe Tolliver's locker and mischievously removed something from Tolliver's jeans pocket. Tolliver saw the tail end of the prank. "Fat boy!" he screamed at Wuerffel, who might carry a stray pound or two. "You better not have done anything to my stuff. If you did, I'll s--- in your locker."
"This place," new Saints quarterback Kerry Collins said with a chuckle, "is great."
Certainly for lost quarterbacking souls, who have been marching into the Saints' picture for the past two seasons. First, in an April 1997 trade, came Redskins reject Heath Shuler, whose career is in limbo because of nerve damage in his left foot. Later that month, in the fourth round of the draft, came Wuerffel, the 1996 Heisman Trophy winner out of Florida, whom no one wanted. In November came the player canned by Buffalo for not doing his homework and embarrassing himself in a game, Billy Joe Hobert, now on injured reserve with a torn left Achilles. This year came the unemployed golfaholic, Tolliver, whose most strenuous job until the Saints called two months ago was taking out the trash. Finally two weeks ago came Collins, the disgraced cornerstone of the Carolina franchise who was waived on Oct. 13, six days after reportedly telling Panthers coach Dom Capers that his heart wasn't in the game anymore.
Now, in a new locker room, after his sixth practice, dressing next to starter-for-the-week Tolliver, Collins looked ecstatic. "I'm as excited about football as I've ever been," Collins said. "I feel liberated."
You know why Collins feels so good? Because here he can be Joe Schmo. Here he can blend in. Here he is not the First Pick in Franchise History. Here, far from his 6,500-square-foot palace on a North Carolina lake, he tucks himself into an $89-a-night hotel room. Although New Orleans is probably only a way station for Collinshe was claimed on waivers on Oct. 14 and will be a free agent after this seasonit's an ideal place for him, a city where expectations are never too high. This lost soul is precisely where he needs to be if he is going to start salvaging his career.
Around the NFL, Collins's image is dirt. He may as well wear a scarlet Q on his Saints jerseyfor quitter. Collins disputes Capers's assertion that the quarterback said his heart wasn't in football, though he declines to elaborate on his meeting with the coach. But Collins, who played last year with a jaw that was shattered in a preseason game and had to be wired together with four titanium plates and 21 metal screws, never got over the club's decision last winter not to make a $6 million payment on his contract, thus voiding its final three years. A restricted free agent, Collins subsequently signed a one-year, $1.15 million deal with the Panthers.
"I don't know if I can erase what people are thinking of me," Collins says, "but I can't worry about that. At least now when I wake up, I feel like I can breathe. I'm alive. I've had a 10,000-pound weight lifted off my shoulders. I just know that I feel better about my career than I ever did in Carolina."
This comes from the man who quarterbacked the Panthers to the 1996 NFC Championship Game, in the process knocking the 49ers off their NFC West throne with a 327-yard, three-touchdown whipping in San Francisco. "But I never felt like I could relax and just play there," Collins says. "I heard [Chargers rookie quarterback] Ryan Leaf say something this fall about how he wasn't sure he was cut out to do this, and I identified with him so well. I was the first pick in Carolina. I was supposed to be the key guy. At 22, 23, I was asked to carry a team like I was 35 and had been in the NFL 10 or 12 years. The pressure never leaves, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I'm not making excuses, but it weighed on me all the time. So people have a perception about Kerry Collins and think they know me? They have no idea who I am."
Ever the showman, Ditka would undoubtedly love to start Collins this Sunday at Carolina, but such a move makes no sense in the wake of the Saints' 9-3 upset of the Bucs. Tolliver played a smart game (20 completions in 32 attempts for 216 yards, with no touchdowns or interceptions). "He manages the game well, and he doesn't make mistakes," Ditka said afterward. "Gotta stay with him." Then he smiled a sly smile, and said, "But you never know what I'll do."
Collins dearly wants to be on the field. "You don't know how badly I want to play in that game," he said after the win over the Bucs. But he's not going to make waves. In fact, look for him to blend in just fine on the Saints' sideline.
In 13 seasons Giants outside linebacker Lawrence Taylor had 142 sacks (including 9 1/2 from his rookie year, before the NFL began keeping the stat) and was voted to 10 Pro Bowls. In 13 1/2 seasons itinerant outside linebacker Kevin Greene, who's back in Carolina this season for his second tour of duty with the Panthers, has 144 sacks. He has been voted to just four Pro Bowls.
Greene, who leads the league with 11 sacks and is on pace to break Mark Gastineau's season record of 22, doesn't claim he has had the impact on the game that Taylor hadnor should he. In stopping the run and pursuing the passer, Taylor was peerless. But Greene is peeved by the lack of recognition he has received and wonders why he isn't considered one of the best defenders of his day.
Enmity among his fellow players has apparently hurt Greene. Since 1995, Pro Bowl rosters have been determined by a vote of players, coaches and fans, but before that, only the players cast votes. Greene, 36, may have alienated some of his peers with his attention-grabbing professional-wrestling persona. (He has even made some money as a guest star in the ring.) But aren't Deion Sanders and Michael Irvin look-at-me guys, too? Also, rumors of steroid use might have cost Greene the respect of some players, though he has never tested positive for any banned substance. "I've never done steroids and never will," he says. "It's a cop-out for someone to say that's hurt me."
Whatever the reasons, the snubs have been obvious. On two occasions Greene wasn't voted to the Pro Bowl even though he had more sacks than any of the three outside linebackers who made it. This season marks the ninth time that he will finish with a double-digit sack total. He led the league in '94 with the Steelers and in '96 with the Panthers, and he is in excellent shape as he pursues an NFL-record third sack title. By comparison, Taylor led the league in sacks only once.
A prediction on the order of NFL coaching terminations: the Ravens' Ted Marchibroda; the Redskins' Norv Turner; the Eagles' Ray Rhodes; the Rams' Dick Vermeil, who, if fired, would have to be paid a total of $5.7 million for the final three years of his contract; the Cardinals' Vince Tobin; and the Seahawks' Dennis Erickson, if Seattle falls short of the playoffs. Also on the hot seat are the Bears' Dave Wannstedt, who probably must win seven or eight games to keep his job, and the Bengals' Bruce Coslet, who needs to show by December that the Bengals aren't as hopeless as they appear now. Interim Chargers coach June Jones will be judged strictly on his development of Ryan Leaf.
One college scout who watched Kentucky extensively in October says junior quarterback Tim Couch is significantly ahead of where Leaf and Peyton Manning were at this time last season. But Couch, the scout says, is discouraged by the hard time Manningwho ushered him around the Tennessee campus on a recruiting trip four years agois having adjusting to the NFL. Couch will have to weigh whether it would be more advantageous to come out in 1999, when the Browns will have a topflight organization and riches to spend on free agents, or in 2000, when he would probably be drafted by the worst team in the league.... Panthers defensive end Sean Gilbert, who last April signed the richest contract for a defensive player in NFL history, hasn't had a sack since Sept. 13.
Backup Steelers running back Richard Huntley likes to sew and makes his own pajamas.
1. Counterfeit Bucs The most damning offensive stat this season: In 38 first-half possessions, preseason darling Tampa Bay has produced only three field goals. Starting with a game against the Vikings this Sunday in Tampa, the schedule gets only tougher. "Now we find out if we have the heart of a champion or the heart of a cowardly lion," Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp said after a 9-3 loss to the Saints.
2. El Perfecto? The Broncos and the Vikings are 7-0, but they both have a serious November roadblock before they can start thinking about 16-0. Denver (four home games remaining, five away) has a Nov. 16 date at Kansas City, where it is 1-3 under Mike Shanahan. Minnesota (five home, four away) has a brutal five-day stretchthe Packers at home, the Cowboys on the road for a Thanksgiving Day tilt. What are the chances of either going undefeated? Says Jaguars coach Tom Coughlin, "It's as remote a possibility as someone hitting 70 home runs."
3. Good News Bears Only a month ago we buried the men of Dave Wannstedt, the coach the front office brought back this year for what looked like a second-straight dismal season. Now Chicago has won three of its last four.
The Falcons entered Sunday's game against the Jets with the NFL's second-best defense against the run. Having not allowed a 100-yard rushing performance in 14 consecutive games, they had set their sights on cooling off Curtis Martin. The shifty Martin had run for more than 100 yards in each of his previous three games, thanks mostly to a play that few teams employ as often or as effectively as the Jets. "They use a toss sweep off of a bunch formation," Falcons defensive coordinator Rich Brooks said last Thursday. "Other teams run it once or twice in a game. The Jets will do it up to 15 times."
In New York's toss sweep, wideouts Wayne Chrebet and Keyshawn Johnson line up on the strong side, with Chrebet wide and Johnson in the slot about two yards outside of the tight end. As Martin gathers a short pitch, Chrebet moves inside and blocks Johnson's man, and Johnson cracks down on the player across from the tight end, freeing up that blocker or the tackle to pull and obliterate a defensive back.
"Some defenses put a linebacker out there, but then the Jets can kill you with the pass," Brooks said. "You hate to have a linebacker cover a receiver."
Instead, for most of the first half on Sunday, New York crossed up the Falcons by running plays out of the bunch formation to the weak side. Then with 1:35 left in the half and the Falcons making adjustments, Martin took a pitch to the strong side and ran behind 312-pound right tackle Jason Fabini, who wiped out 203-pound cornerback Michael Booker. The result was a 13-yard gain, Martin's longest of the day.
With the Falcons focused on stopping that play, Vinny Testaverde threw for two third-quarter touchdowns. All told, Martin ran the toss sweep six times, for 46 yards. Despite sitting out the fourth quarter, he finished with 101 yards rushing as the Jets rolled to a 28-3 win.
"They knew what we were looking for and brought out a new package," Brooks said afterward. "Teams give you something different every week. This was just a lot more different than usual."
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