July 7, 2011

One-time, short-time Saint QB Kerry Collins retires

After 16 seasons in the NFL, one-half of which was spent as a Saint, veteran QB Kerry Collins has announced he has retired.  Collins, 38, leaves the game with 40,441 passing yards, eleventh all-time in NFL history.

1,202 of those yards were earned as a Saint in 1998.  

The first ever draft pick of the expansion Carolina Panthers in 1995, fifth overall, Collins started 42 games for the Panthers.  He saw action by the second game of his rookie season and by week five had claimed the starting job from Frank Reich and Jack Trudeau.  He led the Panthers to the franchise's first victory, against the New York Jets in week six. The next week Collins went 8/21 for 48 yards and a touchdown, and with the help of RB Howard Griffith, beat Jim Everett (27/48, 241, 4INT) and the Saints 20-3 in the first matchup of the rivals ever.

In 1996, Collins made the Pro Bowl as the Panthers fell one game short of going to the Super Bowl.  He led a fourth-quarter comeback to beat the Saints in the Superdome on a John Kasay field goal.  The next year, a string of bad drunken locker room jokes drew accusations of being a racist.  He was punched by one of his own linemen. Collins led the NFL in interceptions as the Panthers went 7-9.

Before the 1998 season, the Panthers refused to exercise a $6 million option that would have extended Collins' contract through 2001.  It was a sign that his off-field issues were affecting his on-field potential, and set up Collins to be a free agent in 1999. 

Collins was demoted and then waived by Dom Caper's 0-5 Panthers team in early October. Amid swirling public accusations of quitting on his teammates, and quietly losing a battle with alcoholism, Mike Ditka and the Saints claimed Collins on waivers on October 14.

Then-Bucs DT Warren Sapp ripped Collins for quitting on his teammates, calling him a "coward".  Collins denied having told Capers that he his "heart" wasn't in the game. Ditka suggested that the Saints could be a "guardian angel" for the troubled young quarterback.

The Saints claimed the rest of Collins' contract, just over $1.1 million, and cut QB Jake Delhomme to make room.  Ditka had just benched Danny Wuerffel for Billy Joe Tolliver the previous week.  After starting off 3-0 behind Wuerffel, the Saints had slipped to 4-3 when they went to play the Panthers on November 1.  Beuerlein and the Panthers beat the Saints soundly, 31-17, claiming Carolina's first win of the season as Collins stood on visitor's sideline.

Collins would be arrested for DWI later that night, blowing a .14 blood alcohol after drinking with his former teammates after the game.  Collins apologized, saying that "I realize I'm at a critical juncture in my career as an NFL quarterback."  

"I don't think he's a bad kid,"  Ditka told the media.  Collins' college head coach, Joe Paterno, told the media "I think that basically he is a good kid."

After waiting a full month, Ditka pleased Saints fans and put Collins, 25, into the lineup for his 4-5 Saints as they hosted 3-6 St. Louis.  Thanks to an early touchdown pass to TE Cam Cleeland, seven sacks from the Saints' defensive line, two interceptions and touchdowns by two defenders, the Saints won 24-3 and pulled even at 5-5.  Collins went 13/26 for 150 yards and a touchdown.  He also led the Saints with 36 rushing yards.

The next game was the Sean Dawkins fumble game, and the 49ers pulled away from the Saints in the third quarter despite solid play from Collins, who finished 22/44 for 328 yards and a one-yard dive touchdown that put the Saints up 10-0 in the first quarter.

Collins would thank coach Ditka publicly after his second decent start, talking about getting second chances.  He was quietly beginning therapy and counseling, part of the NFL's substance abuse program.  The feel good fell apart as the Saints were dismantled 30-10 by the Dolphins in Miami, and Ditka told his team they were an embarrassment.

The only other victory Collins would find as a Saint would come the next week, when a defensive gem by the Saints' defense would hold Emmitt Smith to six rushing yards.  Collins matched it with his finest game in black and gold, completing 16 of 28 passes for 239 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, including an 89-yard touchdown strike to Andre Hastings.  

Collins fumbled the opening possession and threw three picks before being pulled in the second quarter of the Saints' loss to the Super Bowl-bound Falcons the next week.  Against the Cardinals, Collins hit 24 of 43 passes and a late rallying touchdown to put the Saints up by one with 1:17 left.  Jake Plummer drove his team into position for a game-winning field goal, knocking the Saints out of the playoffs.

In the finale Collins was yanked out of the game in the first quarter, the Saints down 21-0 to the Bills. Billy Joe Tolliver led a spirited comeback but the Saints lost 45-33, having been down 28-0.

After a rollercoaster season with the Saints, Collins was a free agent.  In part because of his loyalty to Ditka, Collins expressed desire to stay with the Saints.  GM Bill Kuharich said it was Ditka's decision, and that the coach decided not to re-sign Collins.  Ditka cited 14 turnovers in seven games, and suggested that Collins needed to find himself a good woman to help him clean up his life.

Collins completed his rehab stint at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas.  He entered the new millennium sober and somber.  

A $5 million bonus to sign with the New York Giants in 1999 was the immediate dividend of his sobriety.  Two seasons later he played in the Super Bowl, losing to the Ravens.

In the aftermath of 9/11, Collins, the Giants' starting quarterback, led the charge by setting up charities and donations for New York firehouses.  He spent hours trying to lift the spirits of workers at ground zero and at suddenly-quiet firehouses.  He delivered five giant screen TV's to a New Jersey firehouse and tens of thousands of his money to family relief funds.

After he crossed 30, Collins fell into mediocre teams, but kept playing.  He was booted from New York after a 4-12 finish, as the Giants drafted Eli Manning to replace him.

"I've been called a racist, a drunk and a quitter.  Other than that, I'm fine," Collins said upon arrival in Oakland in 2004.  The Raiders, through little fault of Collins', were among the NFL's worst.  After a 4-12 2005 season, the Raiders dumped Collins and signed former Saint QB Aaron Brooks, and went 2-14.

Collins arrived in Tennessee in 2006, taking on the role of veteran backup and mentor to Vince Young.  

Then, at age 36, he started 15 games for the Titans in 2008 after Young was lost to a knee injury in week one.  The Titans stuck with Collins even when Young was health, the steady veteran guiding the Titans to a 13-3 record and the number one seed in the playoffs.  

Collins made only his second Pro Bowl that year for the Titans, his first since 1997, completing a cycle that took him through hell, and New Orleans, and back to earn the honors a second time.

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