Last week Collins's agent, Leigh Steinberg, gave him the home phone numbers of two of his other quarterback clients, Drew Bledsoe and Steve Young, so that Collins could talk to two men who also struggled early in their careers. Young was a Tampa Bay Buccaneer in the mid-1980s. Enough said. After going to the Pro Bowl following the '94 season, Bledsoe threw three more interceptions (16) than touchdown passes (13) for the New England Patriots in '95 and landed in coach Bill Parcells's standing-room-only doghouse. Collins may find the counseling helpful. Or it may deepen his depression when he's reminded that Bledsoe and Young and guys like Troy Aikman (0-11 in his rookie year as a starter with the Dallas Cowboys) have had supporting casts rich in Pro Bowl talent. Except for tight end Wesley Walls, Collins was Carolina's lone offensive Pro Bowl representative last season.
"Kerry understands that just about every other good quarterback struggled when he was young," says Beuerlein, an 11-year veteran of five teams who spent the 1991 and '92 seasons in Dallas with Aikman. "I've had a lot of experience watching guys develop in this league, and I've tried to relate that to Kerry, but it doesn't make it any easier. I told Kerry to look at John Elway in Denver. It took him four years before people started believing in him."
The Panthers have one rushing touchdown this season and don't have a wide receiver or a runner ranked in the top 20 in the league. Carolina's No. 1 pick in 1996, running back Tshimanga Biakabutuka, is struggling to recover from a knee injury that sidelined him for the last 12 games of his rookie season, so the Panthers have had to rely on eight-year journeyman Anthony Johnson and rookie free agent Fred Lane to rush the ball. Furthermore, Carolina didn't re-sign its top two wideouts from last year. Instead it started the season with rookie first-round selection Rae Carruth and veterans Muhammad, Ernie Mills and Raghib Ismail, who, despite having only one touchdown catch since the start of last season, has a hamburger named after him at McDonald's restaurants in North Carolina. After Muhammad went down with a wrist injury in the Chargers game, the Panthers re-signed Mark Carrier, who was second on Carolina last year with 58 receptions.
Because of injuries and uninspired play, Capers has tried nine linemen in several combinations up front. None has worked. Against the 49ers, Bucky Greeley and Mark Rodenhauser subbed at center for Frank Garcia and were eaten alive by tackle Dana Stubblefield. On Sunday, Matt Campbell took over for Matt Elliott at left guard, but the results weren't much better. Beuerlein was sacked five times, and Carolina finished with only 80 yards on the ground. "We're playing flat," says one offensive starter. "We don't have any confidence. We're just a team without emotion. If you look at last year's team on film and this year's, it's like two different teams."
Last season, during the week after a 20-17 loss to Atlanta that dropped their record to 5-4, the Panthers aired their complaints at a team meeting. Carolina won its last seven regular-season games. Most of what was said at that meeting appeared in Year of the Cat, a book by beat writers Charles Chandler and Scott Fowler, about the Panthers' memorable season. As a result, the offensive starter says, "there's been a major loss of trust on this team. That's a major issue. Even if we had a team meeting, I wouldn't put much merit in it. What we need is a fire-and-brimstone speech. We need someone to step up and let people in this locker room know that what's happening won't be tolerated."
Collins is the logical candidate to make such an oration, but he doesn't sound ready to do it. "I'm still at my lowest point," he said on Sunday. "I need to step back and collect myself. A lot of times, knowing that other great quarterbacks struggled early on is the only thing that gets me through, to know that I'm not alone in these kinds of things. I'm sure I will come out stronger because of all this. I can't imagine it getting any tougher."
Physically Collins should be ready by early November, when Carolina begins a stretch that includes games against the Broncos, the 49ers, the Cowboys and the Green Bay Packers. All eyes will be on him. "Kerry knows how he reacts to this situation will have a lot to do with setting the tone for the rest of his career," says Steinberg. "He was almost preternaturally mature last year. Now he's hitting the bumps that all quarterbacks hit at some point. In the long run, this might be the best thing for Kerry."
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