Call him survivor or old QB, Collins still winning

Fourteen-year veteran quarterback Kerry Collins has helped lead the Titans to a perfect 10-0 record in 2008.

But here he is, gray stubble and all, a key reason the Tennessee Titans are the NFL's last unbeaten team with a franchise-best 10-0 mark.

The fifth pick overall in 1995, Collins took his first team to the NFC championship game in his second season, and led the New York Giants to the 2001 Super Bowl. But he also had problems with alcohol and the behavior that went with drinking.

Now the guy who once felt he had to be the life of the party is happy to rush home to his wife and 4-year-old daughter. A big night out these days? Playing cards with friends or sitting in a deer stand by himself.

"If you play 14 years in this business, part of your career is going to be about survival," Collins said.

"I think one thing that's kept me in it is I've been able to come back from situations. I've been able to come back from personal things, from good years, from down years. I mean, that's just part of being in this business for a long time."

Thus did a player once labeled a quitter for asking his coach to bench him keep these Titans from a potential meltdown in September. That's when Vince Young, the No. 3 pick overall in 2006, sprained his knee -- and his ego -- after being booed by hometown fans. Collins ran on the field and has made every play necessary since to keep Tennessee the NFL's lone remaining unbeaten team.

Now the guy who ranks behind only Brett Favre and Peyton Manning in career yards passing among active quarterbacks is busy adding to his numbers. He ranks 14th all-time with 36,472 yards passing; he is 12th in career completions; and 10th in career attempts. With a 9-0 record as a starter, he has improved his overall record to 79-85.

He has been at his best the past two weeks when defenses dared the Titans to pass. Collins threw for 519 yards with five touchdowns and one interception against Chicago and Jacksonville for a combined passer rating of 111.4.

Derided as simply a "game manager" during the early part of his run, he threw TD passes when the Bears stacked eight and nine men to stop the Titans' strong running game. Then he did what the best QBs do, rallying Tennessee from a 14-3 halftime deficit in Jacksonville with three second-half touchdown passes.

"He's always done three things that always set good quarterbacks apart. He's taken ups and downs in stride; he's prepared thoroughly, and he's competed like the devil," said Indianapolis president Bill Polian, who made Collins the expansion Carolina Panthers' first-ever draft pick when he came out of Penn State.

Back then, Collins was a prodigy -- which sometimes turns out to be a traumatic experience.

His right arm was so strong as a teenager that his father moved him into a different school district to give him a better chance to compete for a Pennsylvania championship and earn a scholarship. Once, he was bitter about that. Now a father himself, Collins said he understands his parents wanted to give him an opportunity to succeed.

"I can't fault them for that. They never pushed it on me. I chose this path and certainly have made some mistakes along the way," Collins said. "I don't regret any of it."

It's been quite a journey.

He set a string of records at Penn State and helped give Joe Paterno his fifth undefeated season in 1994, topped with a Rose Bowl victory.

Fran Ganter, offensive coordinator for that 1994 team and now Penn State's associate athletic director for football, remembers Collins as such a fierce competitor it seemed as if the quarterback "wanted to bite your throat" on the sideline. Now Ganter sees Collins at peace with life and under total control.

"He seems so calm and poised right now, so much so it's amazing, it's fun to watch him," Ganter said.

Titans center Kevin Mawae, in his 15th pro season, said Collins has figured out what it takes to stay in the NFL while learning from his mistakes both on and off the field.

"There's got to be some kind of mental toughness about you and to be able to handle it, and he's done that. It comes through maturity and the things you have to face early on in your career. ... He's one of those guys a lot of young players could stand to learn from," Mawae said.

Not bad for a guy who used to be the example of what not to do in the NFL.

He was called a racist for his attempt at a drunken joke in 1997 during his time with the Panthers -- in which he used a derogatory racial term in the presence of a black teammate. He was called a quitter for asking Carolina coach Dom Capers to bench him in 1998; he got cut instead.

His short stint in New Orleans is noteworthy for a photo after a drunk driving arrest in which Collins was swaggering down a street, cigar in hand, after being released from jail.

Collins went through alcohol rehab, then got a third NFL chance -- from the Giants -- in the form of a four-year, $16.9 million contract. Off the field he worked with the team's psychiatrist, and in his sixth NFL season he helped the Giants to the Super Bowl. When he arrived at the big game in Tampa, he bared his life story in a 45-minute session with the media that riveted even the most jaded reporters.

But by 2004, the Giants had obtained Eli Manning. Collins asked for his release from the Giants and got it; New York signed Kurt Warner to help break in Manning in his stead. Then he signed with Oakland for two seasons and was one of the few weapons on a franchise that even then had turned into one of the NFL's worst.

Titans coach Jeff Fisher wanted Collins in 2006 for his arm and his knowledge to help teach Young how to be an NFL quarterback. The deal didn't happen until late August. With so little time to learn, Collins went 0-3 as a starter before yielding to the rookie and becoming the teacher on the sideline.

Collins' chance came this September in the wake of Young's sprained knee. After Collins won his first start, Fisher said he would stick with Collins as long as the Titans kept winning.

They haven't stopped.

"We just felt that he would be a perfect fit for us," Fisher said of Collins.

Collins has always been limited by a lack of mobility that makes him vulnerable to the pass rush, although he has lost 17 pounds this season and been able to move better than when he was younger. He has been sacked only five times, intercepted just four. While his eight touchdowns may not compare to his gunslinging days, he's only one away from matching Tennessee's TD total through the air for all of 2007.

Giants receiver Amani Toomer was Collins' top receiver in New York and isn't surprised by the quarterback's success now.

"He's a really accurate passer, threw a really good deep ball. Smart. I respected a lot about Kerry and I loved playing with him," said Toomer, who had five straight 1,000 yard receiving seasons with Collins at quarterback.

Each win brings in more reporters eager to dredge up Collins' past and see if those scars truly are healed. Collins talks as long as needed and says he knows the questions will keep coming as long as he plays. It's an easy trade-off to make.

"I'm at peace with my past, and so I guess it's easier for me to talk about it now," he said.

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