Guys and gals - please give a warm welcome to our guest writer Robby Fletcher. Robby had the pleasure of interviewing Todd Collins about his 2007 late-season run as starter with the Redskins. His story is below.
You can give Robby a follow on Twitter @RFletcher_VT.
As the clock struck triple zeroes and the sidelines cleared for post-game congratulatories for the favored Seattle Seahawks at their home in Qwest Field, the season ended prematurely like many before it for the Washington Redskins. The scoreboard read 35-14, a score that was largely expected by many commentators and analysts, who saw the 10-6 Seahawks, a team with the sixth best scoring defense in the league, as the easy favorite over a Redskins team that just barely squeaked into the Wild Card conversation with a Week 17 win over a Cowboys team that had already punched their ticket to the Divisional Round of the playoffs.
While that 2007-08 Redskins team might just be remembered as a fringe playoff team by most, the real story is perhaps far more complex than that. Just four weeks prior to that season-ending loss, the team was in complete shambles. The team not only were losers of four consecutive contests, but were also in the process of mourning one of the team’s most beloved players in Sean Taylor. The blossoming 24-year-old safety was a fan favorite and considered to be one of the best safeties in the league before tragically being killed after a botched robbery attempt of his home in Miami, Florida.
With playoff hopes rapidly diminishing and the loss of a well-respected teammate looming large, Washington’s only hope at a playoff berth would be to win out in the final four games of the season, starting with a home matchup on Thursday Night Football against the 5-7 Chicago Bears, a team with similarly low playoff odds. It was a “loser goes home” type of situation as NBC commentator Chris Collinsworth put it before the game. He wasn’t wrong.
With 2:59 left to play in the second quarter, with the game still scoreless, disaster struck for Washington after quarterback Jason Campbell stayed down on the field with his left hand holding his kneecap after taking a hit on a third-down pass to running back Ladell Betts. Campbell threw his helmet to the side and laid there in obvious pain after his leg buckled under Chicago defensive end Mark Anderson. He was later carted off the field, where it was determined that he had suffered a dislocated left patella, effectively ending his season.
If hope for a playoff run seemed low before, it had reached rock bottom now. Though not having an incredible season as starter, the 25-year-old Auburn standout was just 20 starts into his NFL career, and the hope around him as a potential franchise quarterback was still full in effect.
With Campbell out, head coach Joe Gibbs had to turn to Todd Collins, a 36-year-old career backup who hadn’t thrown a regular season pass since 2004.
What would transpire during that fateful Thursday night was the start of one of the most miraculous season-ending runs in franchise history led by a player whose career up until that point was anything but miraculous. Still, you ask him now what he thinks about the best run of his NFL career, and he’ll just boil it down to one simple factor: team work.
“That whole run we had was a testament to the whole team, not just my performance,” he said.
Drafted with the 45th pick in the 1995 NFL Draft by the Buffalo Bills, Collins came into the NFL with considerable hype after a solid collegiate career at Michigan, where he left the team holding the school record for best career completion percentage and the second most pass attempts, yards and completions.
Considered the heir apparent to Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly, Collins finally got his shot at the starting job in his third season in the league after Kelly retired in 1996. Collins would lead the Bills to a 5-4 record at one point in the season, with his best performance coming in a 26-point comeback over the Colts in Week 4, but from there he and the team struggled to close out the season, winning just one of their last seven games. Ironically enough, the team also faced a 5-7 record similar to Washington in 2007, yet this time, Collins’ team was only able to win just one of those games.
That season as starter would be Collins’ last, as the Bills let him go after finishing 6-10 on the year and missing the playoffs for the first time in three seasons. He’d later go to Kansas City where he’d spend eight seasons as a backup. In those eight seasons, he’d attempt just 27 passes, one for a touchdown, while sitting behind longtime NFL starters like Trent Green, Warren Moon and Rich Gannon. In his first three seasons as a backup with the Chiefs, he did not see any regular season action.
It was a frustrating experience for Collins, who struggled to gain reps beyond running the scout team in practice.
“During the course of the season, you really don’t get any reps at all. At least that was the philosophy for the teams that I was at,” Collins said. “You’d get a few reps during training camp and the preseason games, but during the season, it was just all mental.”
Despite a quick fall from being considered the future of an NFL offense to a perennial understudy, Collins never let the label of an NFL backup discourage him. He instead became a reliable presence in the quarterback room as he worked with offensive coordinator Al Saunders and quarterbacks coach Terry Shea to help prepare the offense for each game.
“It was kind of a lot of discipline to stay into the plan and not get discouraged and stay motivated week-to-week. At some point, you might have to play and people are counting on you to play well,” he said.
Collins was directly on that path to play meaningful minutes in a regular season game once he left the Chiefs in free agency after the 2005 season. And with Saunders accepting a job on coach Gibbs’ staff to be the team’s offensive coordinator and associate head coach, the decision to head to Washington was an easy one for Collins.
“That was the main driver for me to go to Washington,” he said. “when Al [Saunders] went to Washington he expressed a strong interest in bringing me there because of how familiar I was with the system. Washington made a pretty strong push right from the start so it was pretty obvious that’s where I was going to end up.”
With incumbent starter Mark Brunell and first-round rookie Campbell in the fold, Collins knew that his job was to help the team assimilate Saunders’ new offense during the season.
Though Collins only briefly saw the field in his first season in Washington, it’d be his second year in D.C. that would cement him as a cult hero for Redskins fans.
On Dec. 6, 2007, Collins finally got a chance to play as he trotted off the sideline into the huddle against a Bears team that was equally desperate for a win.
On his first drive with just 1:15 left in the half in a cold weather game, Collins certainly looked like a quarterback who hadn’t thrown a pass in an NFL game in three years, throwing just one four-yard completion and losing a fumble on a strip-sack on third-and-6. There was an understandable amount of rust for Collins on that particular night as he and the team had only a few chances to come out and practice after coming back from Taylor’s funeral in Florida just days before the game.
“I think we might have had a couple of walkthroughs or something like that, and combined with being a Thursday game prior to that week leading up to it, everyone was pretty much cold,” he said.
He’d quickly shake that rust off on his next drive thanks to an interception by cornerback Shawn Springs that put the Redskins just outside the red zone with 36 seconds left to play. On the first play of the drive, Collins delivered a beautiful deep ball in the right corner of the end zone to tight end Todd Yoder, a fellow backup who often lined up as a blocking tight end opposite Chris Cooley. The touchdown was Collins’ first in five years.
Collins would lead three more scoring drives in the second half, one of which was a 16-yard touchdown pass to Betts with just under three minutes left in the game that would prove to be the finishing blow to the Bears’ playoff hopes. Collins pitched in a career-best performance that night, completing 15 of his 20 pass attempts for 224 yards and two touchdowns.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever had a better performance coming off the bench. Ever,” coach Gibbs would later say after the game.
After the win, something changed in this Washington team. No longer did it feel like this was the team dragging its feet to another sub-.500 finish, but a team that actually had something worth playing for.
“I just remember after [Sean’s funeral], the first time we got back to the field, everyone was just so happy just to get out and practice again,” said Collins. “Not everybody loves to practice, but I just felt like on that day, everyone just loved to be back to football and back to doing their jobs.”
After the win over Chicago, Washington had 10 days to rest and prepare to run the gauntlet of two more primetime games against teams with winning records before a Week 17 showdown against a Cowboys team that held the second best scoring offense in the league.
“We knew we had to win every game just to have a chance at the playoffs so it kind of made it more fun since it was a playoff atmosphere,” Collins said.
The first game up was a rematch with the division rival New York Giants on Sunday Night Football. The Giants, who would later win the Super Bowl against the 17-0 New England Patriots, were sitting at 9-4 coming into the game and had previously taken down the Redskins 24-17 in Week 3.
This time though, they’d be facing a quarterback who would be setting a still unbroken NFL record for the longest gap between starts in NFL history at 10 years and two days. If you thought Collins came into the Bears game cold, just imagine what it was like for him in this game, as he was in Boston just two days before the game for the birth of his second son, Jack. Collins would later have to fly into New York on Sunday morning on team owner Dan Snyder’s private jet in order to make the game.
On that night, it wasn’t Collins who led the charge, but instead the rushing combo of Clinton Portis and Ladell Betts, who would combine for 155 rushing yards and the team’s only two touchdowns of the night. Still, he managed to throw for 166 yards in freezing cold conditions with no turnovers.
The game next week would be a far more impressive performance for the quarterback. Coming into one last bout with primetime football, the Redskins had to face a Minnesota Vikings team fresh off a five-game winning streak with a clear path to the final spot in the NFC playoffs thanks to an outstanding season by the team’s two leading running backs, Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor, who accounted for 41% of the team’s total yardage that year. Washington’s only shot at continuing its run was to win this game and get a chance at that final spot in Week 17.
In perhaps the most fitting tribute possible to Taylor and his hard-nosed and physically imposing style of play, the Redskins defense absolutely dominated the rushing duo by holding them to a combined 41 rushing yards all game.
Collins was equally as inspiring in his play on the other side of the field, completing 22 of his 29 attempts for 254 yards and two touchdowns. Both touchdown passes were a testament to Collins’ arm strength, as he launched both passes deep into the end zone to Cooley and Santana Moss for scores of 33 and 32 yards.
With the 32-21 win at the Hubert H. Humphrey Stadium Metrodome, the stage was then set for Collins and Co. to square off against a Cowboys team that beat the Redskins in November in a 28-23 shootout where Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo tossed four touchdown passes to Terrell Owens.
With the team overcoming so many obstacles to even get to this point, this game just felt different. The atmosphere in FedEx Field on that day was thick with emotion and a sense of purpose that wasn’t with this team in November.
Despite sitting tall with home field advantage already locked up for the Divisional Round, the Cowboys looked to play the role of the spoiler in the game, throwing out the usual starting lineups aside from a few players that were listed as questionable on the injury report during the week.
By the third quarter, those starters were pretty much done for the day after a 20-3 start by Washington.
“We didn’t even show up on the field,” Cowboys safety Roy Williams said. “We may have showed up physically, but mentally and everything else, we didn’t show up.”
The Redskins offense was firing on all cylinders from the very start thanks to a legendary performance from Portis, who ran for 104 yards and two scores in honor of his former teammate. And like the week before, Collins had an exceptional performance under center, playing a smart and balanced brand of football that had become a trademark of his over the last four games. Collins would complete seven passes of 15 yards or more during the course of the game, but none were more special than the 42-yard bomb he threw to Moss to put the finishing touches on this epic four-game run.
Rolling to the right off the play-action, Collins put perfect touch on the ball as it dropped right into Moss’ hands to cap off a game that the Redskins would coincidentally win by 21 points, a touching tribute to a former teammate that was not lost on the team after the game.
“To win by 21 on this day, to get into the playoffs,” defensive end Phillip Daniels said after the game. “Oh, man, that’s a great feeling.”
Sitting at 9-7, the Redskins had done what no one thought they were capable of doing. This is especially the case for Collins, who was able to overcome the odds and run the table in a way that he was not able to do in Buffalo just 11 years prior.
With their ticket-punched, the Redskins would face the Seahawks just a week later in Seattle. For Collins, the game felt no different than any other game over the course of his run as starter.
“I didn’t really feel too much difference between that Seattle game and the other regular season games because they were all do-or-die,” he said.
And while a quick look at the box score might display this as a classic case of the better team outmatching their opponent on their home turf, that final score is a bit misleading.
The offense was able to will its way into the lead with a 13-point fourth quarter comeback led by Collins, who threw touchdowns to both Antwaan Randle-El and Moss to give the team its first points of the game. Collins’ connection with Moss was once again evident, and he found Moss drifting towards the left sideline off another successful play-action pass. With 12:45 left in the game, Washington was holding on to a 14-13 lead.
The Redskins would keep that lead up until the six-minute mark, as the Seahawks were able to rail off three straight touchdowns, two off of Collins interceptions. Despite the fight that was so evident throughout the entire run, the season was over.
The run would end up being the last for coach Gibbs, as he called it quits on his coaching career after his second-stint in Washington.
“I was kind of hoping that he would come back to return for another year, but at least we let him go out on somewhat of a winning note with that season,” said Collins.
And while Collins would stick around in Washington for another two seasons, he would never again start a game while sporting the burgundy and gold. He’d later retire after the 2010 season after a brief stint in Chicago.
He now spends his time back in his hometown of Walpole, Massachusetts, where his career started as a multi-sport high school legend. He’s been coaching football since 2013, and was hired to coach his alma mater Walpole High School in 2018 as an offensive coordinator.
Collins has found a natural fit in coaching, as he’s been able to put all the preparation and study habits that come with being an NFL backup into good use.
“It’s kind of helped because all the time I spent having to prepare without actually taking the reps has helped to carry over into the mental part of the game,” he said. “Like they say, it’s not as a coach what you know it’s what you get the players to know and understand.”
He sees himself sticking around in Walpole for the long run as he watches his three sons grow up in the town that cemented him as a Massachusetts football legend.
He also says that very few of his athletes are aware of his status among the Redskins faithful.
“These kids today, at least most of them, don’t watch or keep up with football the way I did in my generation watching NFL Today and all the shows and reading the newspapers and everything like that,” he said. “There’s so much more that these guys have to entertain themselves with.”