My last encounter with Kerry Collins—not exactly the up close and personal kind—was in the interview pen at Tampa's Raymond James Stadium, Jan. 28, 2001. The Ravens had just embarrassed the Giants by a score of 34-7, thanks, in large measure, to the fact that Baltimore's defense—"best defense I've ever faced," said Collins—had succeeded in beating down New York's quarterback.
Though Collins had been spectacular through the postseason (unexpectedly, many said), his failure in the championship round was epic. He knew it, too. His line for Super Bowl XXXV: 15-for-39, 112 yards, four interceptions, four sacks.
Still, those numbers fail to quantify the true misery of his evening. What epitomized the night for me was the sight of Collins being knocked to the ground in the first quarter. Just for good measure, one of the Ravens ripped off his helmet.
After the game, Collins delivered one of the most sober and stand-up self-appraisals I've ever heard: "I don't think that any one man is completely responsible," Collins would say. "But if there was one guy, it would be me. This game is going to hurt me a lot...It's going to stick with me a while."
How long? That was the question. Collins, then 28, had already come back from prohibitive odds—from alcohol, injury and a pronounced case of knuckleheadedness. Still, anyone who saw that game couldn't help but wonder if the Ravens had taken more than his helmet that day.
"I'll come back," he said.
I'd like to say I believed him. I don't think I was alone, either. Professional football is a game that allows even casual fans to indulge their gambler's expertise, endowing them all with a confident sense of the probabilities. But you didn't have to be a professional handicapper to bet that Kerry Collins had run out of comebacks.
What's more, who could have envisioned a comeback like this: seven seasons removed from that Super Bowl, after some lean years with the Giants and leaner still with the Raiders? Who'd have thought an aged backup would be the starter for the NFL's only undefeated team, the 10-0 Tennessee Titans?
Well, maybe there was one guy.
"I'm not surprised," says Colts president Bill Polian. "I'm not surprised by anything he's achieved."
Consider Polian's history. While general manager of the Buffalo Bills, the team went to four consecutive Super Bowls. While GM of an expansion team in Carolina, the Panthers went to the conference championship in only their second year.
Ten seasons ago, Polian became president of the Colts. Indianapolis has been to the playoffs in eight of those years and won a Super Bowl. In other words, it's safe to stipulate that Polian qualifies among the best assessors of talent in league history. Unlike the vast majority of sportswriters, gamblers, and fans, his endorsement means something.
"Terrific arm," Polian says of Collins. "In terms of throwing the ball, there's nothing he can't do. He can make every throw, and he's particularly accurate deep, as you saw."
He was referring to a pair of Collins-to-Justin Gage touchdown strikes—56 and 38 yards—that enabled the Titans to come from behind and beat the Jaguars last Sunday. Collins, it's worth mentioning, has now thrown for 36,472 yards, 14th on the all-time list.
But it wasn't just talent, or a live arm, that drew Polian's notice. "He's got tremendous toughness," says Polian, who first witnessed it Nov. 12, 199—a cold, damp day in Champaign, IL.
The occasion was Illinois-Penn State. Though Penn State was undefeated and playing for a national championship, it fell behind 21-0. The Nittany Lions wouldn't take a lead until there were 57 seconds to play.
Collins, who'd throw for 300 yards and a touchdown that day, was 7-for-7 on the final drive. It ended—one of the fabled games in Penn State history—35-31. Joe Paterno's team would become the first Big Ten team to go 12-0 (and still not win a national championship), and Kerry Collins would go to Polian's Panthers with the fifth pick in the draft.
Those first two years in Carolina—a run that saw an expansion team come within a game of the Super Bowl—must've been a blast. Maybe too much of a blast. Teammates had already begun wondering about Collins' drinking.
Alcohol being a time-honored analgesic among ballplayers, I can't help but wonder whether Collins was self-medicating. But Polian won't go there.
"I'm not a psychiatrist," he says. "I couldn't speak on that."
Whatever the case, Collins was liquored up pretty good that night at the bar when he referred to a couple of his teammates with racial slurs. He thought he was being funny. Obviously, you had to be wasted to appreciate the humor.
Collins apologized, of course. He would pay for those remarks—in public and in the confines of his own locker room. But the bad times had just begun. Two nights after the bar incident, Carolina met Denver in a preseason game.
Collins was in his follow-through, having just let go of a pass, when Broncos linebacker Bill Romanowski tried to drive his helmet through the quarterback's face.
"One of the dirtiest plays I've seen in all of football," says Polian. "It was a terrible, terrible injury."
Romanowski was fined $20,000, not nearly enough if you ask me. Collins' jaw was broken in two places. The surgery required two metal plates. He couldn't eat. He drank through a straw. He lost maybe 20 pounds.
To make matters worse, Collins returned to start the third game of the regular season. "It was obvious that we brought him back too soon, that he came back too soon," says Polian. "He was physically weak."
A couple of games later, on national television against the 49ers, he had the worst game of his then-young career: 11-for-24 for 126 yards and three interceptions. Polian had so admired Collins' ability to stand and deliver, his obliviousness to the oncoming hit. But it was now clear—if not to Polian, then to everyone else—that the quarterback's confidence had been fractured with his jaw.
"He went through a period, as anyone should have expected, that he wasn't himself, wasn't what he had been prior to the injury," said Polian.
They spent a lot of time talking.
"This, too, will pass," Polian assured him. "You'll be back to what you were, probably better."
Probably better? I wonder if Collins believed it.
It was a terrible year. Polian left for the president's job in Indianapolis when it was over. The Panthers waived Collins four games into next season. He bounced around—from New Orleans to the Giants to the Super Bowl. That ended his first comeback.
Some years later, he'd find his way to Oakland. That last year with the Raiders, he threw for 3,759 yards, with 20 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Not bad for a guy who was sacked 39 times. But, hey, Collins always knew how to take a beating.
Next stop, Tennessee, where he was a backup until Vince Young came down with his own case of knuckleheadedness the first Sunday of the season.
Forget Collins' numbers, the quarterback rating bit. The Titans are 10-0. That's his rating. It signifies another comeback, and a big one, too.
There are two points worth noting here. The first is for Vince Young. He should take some comfort in the example of the man who replaced him.
The second regards Bill Polian, and his remarkable ability to handicap the human condition.
This article originally published on FOXSports.com.
Read more of Mark's columns here.