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Kerry Collins isn't Hall of Fame worthy, right?

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Common belief is that Kerry Collins is a journeyman quarterback who had an average-at-best career in the NFL. What if I told you I thought he belonged in the Pro Football Hall of Fame?

Al Bello/Getty Images

Kerry Collins is now three years removed from his three-game appearance as the replacement for an injured Peyton Manning in which he went 0-3 as the Indianapolis Colts quarterback and laid the groundwork for an eventual 2-14 campaign.

Collins was lured out of retirement by the possibility of acting as an insurance policy for Manning, but was thrust into action when it became clear that Manning wasn't returning any time soon. In his third game, Collins suffered a season-ending, and thus career-ending, concussion. He was placed on injured reserve shortly thereafter.

During his 2011 stint, Collins was the worst of the three quarterbacks who saw game action for the Colts, posting a 49.0 completion percentage and a Total QBR of 15.18. For comparison, 2011 was Jacksonville Jaguars' quarterback Blaine Gabbert's rookie year. Widely regarded as a definitive bust, Gabbert is only talked about now as a numerical comparison for every bad quarterback in the league, yet Gabbert's QBR that year was still four points higher than Collins. This is our lasting memory of the player. Now, I'm going to try and convince you why I think he should belong in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

I once heard a definition of what makes a player worthy of the Hall of Fame as the question "Can you tell the story of pro football without them?". Of course, there is an obvious skill and accomplishment requirement to the entry too, as well as the more contemporary need of transcending the era in which you played in. Now, I'm not one of the 46 who get a vote on gold jacket distribution, but I think there is a reasonable expectation that a voter would take into account the three areas outlined above. At the very least, should I ever get the opportunity to vote, you can pencil those points as my requisite criteria for entry so, it makes sense to adopt the same rules now.

ORIGIN STORY

Scott Kacsmar (Analyst, Football Outsiders) :
"My first thought on Kerry Collins is to wonder how this guy ever made it to 6,000 career pass attempts despite performing at a below-average level in almost every season of his career. I guess the college pedigree and big arm talent is something NFL teams never forget, but he really is the worst quarterback that got to play as much as he did."

Collins, a Pennsylvania native, played for Penn State under Joe Paterno from 1991-1994, capping off an impressive college career with a perfect 12-0 season as a senior. For his efforts, he was voted as a consensus first-team All-American and presented the Maxwell awardthe Sammy Baugh trophy and the Davey O' Brien award. He finished fourth in Heisman voting. This is all impressive stuff, but unfortunately entirely irrelevant in the pursuit of professional recognition, though, it is worth noting that for all his achievements in Happy Valley, Collins hasn't been voted into the College Football Hall of Fame either [1].

After years of lobbying the league office to promote the Carolinas as a viable market for a football franchise, former Baltimore Colts receiver Jerry Richardson was awarded an expansion slot to create the 29th NFL team. In 1993, the Carolina Panthers were born. Together with the Jacksonville Jaguars, they were the first new teams since 1976 and private seat licences for the club sold out on the first day.

It wasn't until 1995, however, that the Panthers would see their first competition. They were awarded the first overall pick in the draft that year (with the Jaguars picking second) but chose to trade back to further build their fledgling roster. The Cincinnati Bengals traded their fifth overall pick and the fourth pick in the 2nd round for the rights to go up and take Penn State running back, Ki-Jana Carter [2] at the top of the draft. The Carolina front-office had their eyes on a different Penn State product. With the fifth pick, the Panthers took quarterback Kerry Collins as the first selection in franchise history.

While the story of Collins and the Panthers began with celebratory fireworks, the conclusion of their marriage more closely resembled that of a war zone. The team went 7-9 in their initial year under head coach Dom Capers [3] before surging to 12-4 and an NFC Championship appearance in year two. That was the short-lived peak of the Collins era in Carolina.

In training camp before the 1997 season, Collins said the N-word. Reports about the details of the incident range from maliciousness, to a need to fit in among black teammates, to attributing it to alcohol abuse. Regardless, speculation regarding the particulars is not a good color on anyone so, as a rational football consumer who is aware of the various societal problems ingrained with its image, I'm going to acknowledge that it happened and that it was bad no matter what the context could have been.

The training camp incident was a bad omen. Collins broke his jaw after a helmet-to-helmet hit [4] in the following preseason outing and would miss the first three games of the year. He returned to a string of poor performances and ultimately ended up leading the NFL in interceptions. After an 0-4 start in 1998, he requested a trade, but was instead cut. The New Orleans Saints claimed him on waivers and following his brief vacation in the bayou, Collins entered a rehabilitation program for alcohol abuse.

During his three and a half seasons in Carolina, he compiled 8,036 yards with a 51.7 completion percentage, 47 touchdowns and 51 interceptions. At the time, yardage inflation hadn't quite reached the levels they are at now, though, these are still dramatically sub-par numbers for the mid-nineties. If this had happened in today's NFL, Collins surely wouldn't have made it as far as he did. Maybe it was his college pedigree that earned him chance after chance, or maybe he's a likable player that gets on well with coaches, but either way he's a man who played for six different teams in his illustrious NFL career.

Okay, I feel like I'm losing you here. A top five pick that was cut before he finished his rookie contract? This story isn't working, Alex. You need to start making some points in favor of the Hall of Fame because so far, all you've done is convince everyone that Collins was the '90s equivalent of Johnny Manziel [5].

But this is why he's an important element in the story of football. While other football personalities such as Kurt Warner can portray a squeaky-clean supermarket bag-packer turned MVP, Collins was the anti-hero with clear human flaws. Many people think that Collins' origin story lies with his collegiate accolades, but it doesn't. It's can be found within his rise from the ashes of being labelled a racist, an alcoholic, and a bust. There's nothing intrinsically interesting about success, but the possibility of triumph in the face of adversity is something pretty much anyone can get behind.

In 1998, he hit his bottom [6].

NEW YORK RISING

Chris Wesseling (Writer, NFL.com) :
"Won't even sniff the Hall of Fame. Was a below average QB for a good portion of his career. Classic 'compiler'. Vinny Testaverde was a better compiler. Ken Anderson, not in the HOF, was a far, far better QB than both".

Do you think Collins gets a different rep if Super Bowl XXXV wasn't a massacre?

Wesseling:
"Perhaps. People are obsessed with Super Bowl wins."

Heading into the 1999 season, Kent Graham was 10-14 as a starting quarterback during his six years in the league. This was also his second spell with the New York Giants, having been drafted by them in the 8th round of the 1992 draft. After the team decided to save money by cutting Danny Kannell, an underachieving 1996 draft pick, Graham was left as the lone unproven, if experienced, option [7].

At this time, the Giants had two seasons of The Jim Fassel Experiment under their belt and had gone a combined 18-13-1 since he was hired. Despite a superb staff of Sean Payton as offensive coordinator and John Fox calling the defense, cutting Kannell was a risk. Graham was an unknown entity and as such couldn't be trusted regardless of how much they trusted the coaches. They needed a viable competitive backup should things spiral out of control [8].

General manager Ernie Accorsi decided to take a risk. In Tom Callahan's book, 'The GM' [9], which details the course of Accorsi's professional career, he dedicates an entire chapter to Kerry Collins.

"I've always believed that if a kid was ever a good kid, he can be a good kid again", Accorsi told Callahan. After due diligence researching as far back as Collins' high school days, the general manager and the free-agent met in the Sheraton Meadowlands Hotel to discuss a possible working relationship.

"Physically, he was as tough as they came, but emotionally there was a fragility there. I wonder if that doesn't follow from rehab. Rehab can put a player's pieces back together, but can it make him whole again? I don't think so. He hasn't been rebuilt; he's just been repaired."

In 1999, Accorsi had no way of knowing if Collins was put back together yet, or if there were still a few pieces missing from the puzzle, but he knew he needed a quarterback. So, Accorsi laid down the law with a one-strike-and-you're-out scenario, Collins agreed and by Week 11, he was the starting QB. He wasn't much better than Graham that year, but he had shown flashes of that college arm and enough potential to warrant the playing time.

In 2000, Collins rewarded the team, and Accorsi, for showing faith that he could turn things around. For the first time in his career, he started every game and more importantly, looked like the talent that would warrant a top-five draft pick. Aided by a Tiki Barber ground assault, Collins' aerial attack was potent. Through the air, he hit a career high number of touchdowns (22) and yardage (3,610) while steamrolling towards a 12-4 finish and a trip to the post-season.

The Giants kept their momentum rolling throughout the early stages of the playoffs and met the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship game. Collins had been in this situation before and there was a fear that this game would be much like the loss to the Packers in 1996. You see, people forget how good those late '90s Vikings teams really were. The version that New York drew was the all-singing, all-dancing Randy Moss and Cris Carter show. Both players had racked up more than 1,200 yards each with a combined 24 touchdown receptions. That was more than the entire 2000 Giants team put together. Daunte Culpepper had just torn up the league with 40 total touchdowns and was thoroughly expected to do the same to Big Blue. This was a historically great passing offense that could hold its own against the video-game numbers put up today. The Giants, fans and management alike, were frightened.

And then, suddenly, it was all Kerry Collins. Right out of the gate, he blew the doors off going 6-for-6 to open the game with a pair of touchdown passes on their first two possessions. With a little over two minutes off the clock, the Giants had pulled out a 14-point lead and, statistically, an 81.9 percent chance of winning [10]. All of this before some Minnesota fans had even found their seats.

Okay, real talk, if I was to try and convince you that Collins is worthy of the Hall, I would make you watch this game. It was by far the most impressive he ever looked on tape. He finished the day with 381 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions [11]. I would also argue that one of those interceptions wasn't his fault. On a jailbreak pressure, he attempted to check the ball down to running back Ron Dayne, who tipped the ball up in the air and it was caught by a well-placed Robert Tate. The other was an underthrown deep-pass into double coverage. Dumb, I know, but that's the thing about Collins, even when he was at his best, there were flaws. Boy, I am not good at selling people on the idea that this guy needs a gold jacket.

So, if I was to make a convincing argument that Collins was good, I might end the article there. Just put a bow on it. The End. Unfortunately, this story is far from over. I have more points to make and that requires talking about what happened after the Vikings went to bed. That requires telling you about Super Bowl XXXV.

It just wasn't the right day. Sometimes, you can catch a good team on a bad day and you can pull out a win. Well, the Baltimore Ravens, already a good team, caught the Giants on one of their worst days in history and cruised to a 34-7 victory. The lone New York touchdown not even coming at the hands of Collins, but a special-teams return.

Collins had a chance that day to prove everyone wrong once and for all, but sometimes it just doesn't break right for you or anyone else. The Pennsylvania kid completed 38 percent of his passes for a meager 112 yards and four interceptions. While opposing signal-caller Trent Dilfer went down as one of the worst quarterbacks to win a Super Bowl, Collins' performance that day simply went down as one of the worst. Period. For his sins, Collins made the cover of the following issue of Sports Illustrated. Ravens linebacker Jamie Sharper annihilating him behind the headline "Baltimore Bullies".

Shortly after he retired in 2011, Bill Pennington of the New York Times asked about that game while interviewing the player at his home in Nashville, Tennessee.

"A very bad day," Collins said, "But there were a lot of games after that."

LATTER DAYS

Ed Valentine (Editor of this site, man who laughed when I pitched this) :
"Well ... I think you're crazy if you really believe Kerry Collins has a chance of getting any support at all for the Hall of Fame. I'm not even going to list all of the reasons why it's a ridiculous notion."

Collins would end up in New York for three more seasons after that Super Bowl loss. His best year in terms of statistical value came in 2002, when he posted a franchise-record 4,073 yards passing, though, a quick exit in the Wild Card round at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers would be too much to overcome mentally. On the day, Collins put up 446 yards and four touchdowns, only to lose 39-38 with two field-goal attempts in the last 5 minutes producing zero points for the Giants [12].

It was the beginning of the end for Collins with the Giants. The following season, his numbers dropped off considerably. His yardage totals fell by nearly 25 percent and his interception rate increased dramatically to the extent that it was the first time since joining Big Blue that Collins' failed to throw more touchdowns than passes to the other team.

Things had soured since that loss to the 49ers. It's not a logical progression, but it's a real thing you could have observed. A recent example of such a thing would be the 2011 Giants - Jets game that spurned a Super Bowl for run for one team and a string of back-page punchlines for the other. Some refer to it as momentum, but I reserve that for positive connotations. A more apt analogy was that the spirit was broken. Collins' Giants went 4-9 in 2003, prompting ownership to green-light a complete team rebuild.

Shortly after New York replaced Fassel with Tom Coughlin and drafted Eli Manning, Collins packed his bags and went from one coast to another, signing with the silver and black Oakland Raiders, who too were also undergoing a rebuild. Unlike the peaks of his time in New York, Collins' time as a Raider was a simple valley.

In 2004, he lead the league in interceptions, the second such time he had achieved this feat. A quote often mis-attributed to Albert Einstein states that the definition of insanity is repeating the same task over and over and expecting a different result. That should tell you all you need to know about my opinion of the Raiders as Good Ol' Kerry maintained the starting job the following season after Rich Gannon retired. During his two years in California, Collins lead the Raiders to a disappointing 7-21 record.

His stock was at an all-time low after that. There is little upside to signing a veteran player who had three successive seasons of sub-par performances. The market value just wasn't there and for a long while, it looked like yet another aging star had seen their career dissipate in Oakland Coliseum [13].

But when Billy Volek couldn't sustain a reasonable standard of play in the 2006 pre-season, the Tennessee Titans found themselves with a need for an experience signal-caller to pair with first-round rookie Vince Young. Collins was the obvious choice.

During his first two years in Tennessee, Collins was a ghost. He attempted less than 100 passes while taking on the leadership role as a bench-warmer while Young took to the field. It was clear that the management wanted Young, who had cost the third overall pick in the draft, to gain experience on the field. They knew what they had Collins, or they thought they did anyway.

Young proved too immature for football on the professional level. His athleticism carried his game in college but wasn't enough to elevate him in the NFL. It took a while down south to catch on, but in the first game of 2008, Young went down with an injury. Thirteen years after his first game, Kerry Collins was getting another shot.

Collins didn't have the tools to perform in the same manner he did in college. He was considerably older now, and far removed from the player who guided the Giants to a Super Bowl. In 2008, his playing style was noticeably different from his early years. To compensate for the lack of arm strength, Collins transformed from gunslinger to game manager and that suited the team just fine because, under Jeff Fisher, the Titans were a run-first team and now had rookie running-back Chris Johnson to rack up yardage. Johnson wasn't yet the 2,000-yard phenom we saw in 2009, but his first season was still enough to lighten the load for an aging QB and a 13-3 record. Collins wasn't anything special. He only threw 12 TDs and he didn't even reach 3,000 yards in the air, but he was enough.

Their win total earned the Titans a first-round bye-week in the playoffs, but yet again Collins found himself up facing off in an important game with the Ravens. In a closer battle, the Titans QB did his best to minimize mistakes in order to give the defense a chance to hold against a lackluster Baltimore offense. The Titans bowed out with a 13-10 loss. Another "What If" chapter for the Book of Kerry.

After that, his career consisted mainly of fumes. Not even CJ2K's dash into the record books was enough to ignite a fire in Collins' stat-line. Ultimately, he was benched after an 0-6 start and a 59-0 shutout loss to the Patriots. Vince Young stepped back into the line-up and Collins only really saw action after that if there was an injury or garbage time.

After his short time with the Colts in 2011, he retired.

JOURNEYMAN VALUE

Brad Oremland (Senior NFL Writer, Sports Central) :
"Collins only had two really good seasons; the rest of his career was closer to average. A difference between myself and many statistical analysts is that I believe an average QB provides significant value. In a 32-team league, the 31st-best QB is actually an important player. Not only is he not the worst starter, he's better than most or all of the backups, and he's way better than the third-stringers, CFLers, and street free agents. Collins had a lot of seasons in which he provided that type of value: he was better than anyone else the team could get."

So, some things to assess here. I've probably managed to convince you that Kerry Collins had a great story, but that a story doesn't necessarily translate into football acumen. However, that's just one aspect of my three-pronged Hall of Fame assessment. Let's take a look at the next; requisite talent and accomplishments.

Understanding Collins' value is difficult. For the large part, he was a below-average quarterback. At times, he fluctuated towards the upper tiers but never reached the top, and could never maintain a steady level of output. Still, there is something to be said about the value of a middling player over a long enough timeline [14].

For a second, let's take into account that the NFL states that the average career length of players is roughly six years [15]. Collins' career spanned 17 years from 1995 to 2011. Considering how rocky his early years were, it's extraordinary that he managed to stay afloat as long as he did. This is a guy who survived alcoholism, rehab, racial epithets and most importantly, his own poor play. I'm almost certain if he was to be cast in an explosive Bruckheimer production, he would come through unscathed. The physical toughness to play as long as he did is admirable, but the mental fortitude is almost unbelievable.

And what happens when you play as long as this is that you accrue quite a lot of statistical relevance. Currently, Collins' 3,487 pass completions and 6,261 pass attempts each rank as the 11th most in NFL history. His 40,922 passing yards are good for 12th most. That's more than Johnny Unitas, more than Donovan McNabb, more than Joe freakin' Montana. These are all lifetime achievement awards, but they're valuable nonetheless.

When I was beginning this article, I sourced opinions from various members of NFL media that I respected and thought could offer some insight on Collins. Nobody really offered anything positive about the player except Brad Oremland. I had contacted him because he's a bit of a football historian and recently compiled a list of his Top 101 quarterbacks of all-time. Collins made his list. Nobody who does those kinds of lists ever mentions that name so I was curious as to his reasoning.

Oremland was the first person who saw things the same way I did. He valued the longevity aspect of middling success. Someone who dedicates their whole life to one thing, even if they never master it, should be commended. I think so, anyway. Why else would people have praised David Letterman so highly upon retirement? It sure as hell wasn't because he was always the best talk-show host. Lifetime achievement matters.

Barry Sanders and Walter Payton were clear-cut Hall of Famers but Emmitt Smith and Jerome Bettis skated in on their body of work rather than obvious spark. The league is full of players who get injured before opening day or incur a career-ending injuries at a young age, so there has to be a definitive value to someone who suits up in September every year for a decade and a half. Those players are evergreen.

I don't honestly believe that Collins has a shot at the Hall, but I do believe he deserves it. The story of pro football is incomplete without him. He holds a place in the logbooks of six different teams, and defeated all but one NFL franchise. He was the first pick by a new team, and lead a historic franchise to a Super Bowl. The numbers don't tell the tale of the best player of his generation, but they indicate an important cornerstone in the overall landscape of football history. Collins is a man who transcended his era by simply outlasting it.

ENDNOTES

[1]
That could be set to change soon. On June 2nd, PennLive.com's Bob Flounders reported that Collins was on the 2016 ballot.

[2]
Ki-Jana Carter tore a ligament in his knee in the preseason of his rookie year and was never the same afterward. He struggled on for seven seasons but never performed at a high-level.

[3]
The Panthers illegally met with Capers during the 1994 playoffs when he was still the defensive co-ordinator of the Pittsburgh Steelers. They were fined $150,000 and docked two draft picks for this infraction. Part of the reasoning behind trading down with the Bengals was to re-acquire the second-round pick that they lost for illegal tampering.

[4]
The offender was Bill Romanowski, who also has a history of racial insensitivity.

[5]
Johnny Manziel is nowhere near as bad as what Kerry Collins was at that time, but today's media coverage blows things way out of proportion so, he becomes the logical modern equivalent.

[6]
This is an Alcoholics Anonymous term denoting that, while it may not mean a person has lost everything in their life, they have reached a point where the damage has reached a critical level and they realize they need to change.

[7]
Think of him much as you would Josh McCown today.

[8]
You'll see later why this is an important aspect of considering Collins' value.

[9]
Callahan, T. (2007), 'The GM: The Inside Story of a Dream Job and the Nightmares that Go with it', Crown Press.

[10]
According to Pro-Football-Reference.com's drive chart of the game.

[11]
Curiously, most people fail to mention Collins' two interceptions when they talk about how good he played in that game. Leaving out Collins' flaws when discussing his career is like not mentioning the lens-flares when talking about J.J. Abrams.

[12]
Both were botched snaps, but the second resulted in Matt Allen, a scrambling holder-turned-quarterback, tossing it downfield to an eligible Rich Seubert for an uncalled pass-interference, nothing left on the clock and a heartbreaking loss for New York.

[13]
Jerry Rice was one of Collins' receivers during his time in Oakland.

[14]
According to Chase Stuart of Football Perspective, Collins has a slightly below average career RANY/A ranking. RANY/A is an analytical tool used to designate individual values relative to the league average during their playing career. Collins has a -0.21 score, which indicates a marginal difference from 0; the absolute average.

[15]
There is some controversy regarding this figure and it varies depending on who you source it from. The NFLPA argues that it's 3.3 years, though their math takes a very questionable angle. The official NFL figure is 6 years.