IF YOU play long enough, you will see it all. You will see yourself one game from the Super Bowl at age 24, clueless and flying on instinct, only to crash and burn less than two years later, accused of racism and cowardice, captured on pre- YouTube video leaving a drunk tank, teetering metaphorically at the edge of a cliff. You will see yourself rehabilitated two years later and this time playing all the way to the Super Bowl—where you throw four passes to the wrong team. You will see yourself in god-awful silver-and-black football purgatory and then in Tennessee on the ceremonial last stop before retirement, the backup to a mold-breaking superstar-in-the-making. � You will find yourself, at 35, on your cattle farm in North Carolina in the summer of 2008, with your wife and young daughter, and you'll think that maybe 13 years of playing quarterback in the NFL is enough. Especially after you've tested the limits of professional survival in every way imaginable and emerged the better for it. You'll think it's a little bit harder to leave for yet another training camp.
But you will get into your Chevy Suburban and begin the drive to Nashville, 7 1/2 hours west on I-40. And the emotions will come flooding back, as they have for more than 20 Julys, since your high school days in Central Pennsylvania. "Old familiar feelings," you'll say later. "I started to get fired up."
You are ready to spend one last season wearing a baseball cap on the sideline. "But this is a funny business," you say. "Things happen. Things you don't expect to happen." Like the young superstar-to-be's meltdown in Week 1, asking out of a game in the face of hometown booing, spraining his knee and then going missing for one long, strange night. The job is yours, and everything falls into place, and damn near the middle of December, after a 28--9 win over the Cleveland Browns, the Tennessee Titans are 12--1 and you are their leader and their lifeline. And now you really have seen it all.
"Things happened early in my career. There's something that drives all of us who have been in this game for a long time. For me, a lot of it is trying to atone for those things so that they're not my legacy."
—Kerry Collins, December 2008
NFL PLAYERS cut no slack for reserves thrust into starting roles. "Guys expect the second guy to step up," says Titans center Kevin Mawae, a 15-year veteran. "Especially at quarterback." It happens every week. Still, the circumstances surrounding Collins's ascension in Tennessee were outside the norm. Vince Young was the new face of the franchise, an electrifying runner-passer who had taken the Titans to the playoffs in 2007, his second season, and who could rescue a lost game with his extraordinary skills. Suddenly, before the team's opening game of '08 was finished, Young was struggling (two interceptions), had to be talked back into the game by coach Jeff Fisher and then injured his left knee.
It was Collins, signed by Tennessee in '06 to help smooth Young's transition to the pro game, who secured that Week 1 victory. He finished an insurance drive to give the Titans a 17--7 lead, and they held on to win 17--10. A week later, after concerns about Young's psychological state prompted a call to the police, Collins was named the starting quarterback. In that maelstrom the Titans beat the Cincinnati Bengals 24--7. A week later, at home against Houston, Collins's first pass was intercepted. On the second offensive series of the game he entered the huddle and said, "Now that we got that out of the way, let's play some football."
Such is the measure of Collins's cool that the transition to a veteran who lacks the athleticism to execute the plays created for Young has been seamless. "If Kerry had laid an egg, there would have been problems in the locker room," says Mawae. "But he came in, played successfully and challenged guys to elevate their games."
Collins is part of a veteran resurgence at the NFL's most important position. No fewer than five quarterbacks who are 35 or older—Brett Favre of the New York Jets (39), Jeff Garcia of the Tampa Bay Bucs (38), Kurt Warner of the Arizona Cardinals (37), Gus Frerotte of the Minnesota Vikings (37) and Collins—have led their teams into strong playoff positions. No common reason is apparent save the obvious: Been there, seen that. How else do you compare a dead-solid first-ballot Hall of Famer like Favre and a journeyman like Frerotte? Or a gunslinger like Warner and a stable, ball-control quarterback like Collins?
Seldom has Collins compiled great individual statistics, and this year is no exception. He ranks in the bottom third of the league in nearly every major passing category. But he also has thrown only four interceptions, and in November wins over Chicago and Jacksonville, when defenses filled the box to stop Tennessee's potent ground game, he passed for an average of just under 260 yards. "We are a run-oriented team," says Fisher, "but in a number of games this year we've had to pick it up and throw it."
Early last week Collins sat at the front edge of a couch in the players' lounge at the Titans' practice facility. With a heavy flannel shirt and some Favreian salt-and-pepper stubble, he looked every bit the gentleman farmer that he is in the off-season. This year has been a gift of sorts, and Collins knows it. "Of course I didn't expect this," he says. "But a lot of what happens for a quarterback in this league depends on what kind of car you've got to drive. This is a pretty good car."