ASHBURN, Va. (AP) -In a Washington Redskins season that has all the emotional swings of a Shakespearean drama, Todd Collins is the comic relief.
Players who speak with somber voices when discussing the aftereffects of the death of Sean Taylor break out in goofy grins and shake their heads in amazement when the name Todd is mentioned. Those are distinct, almost parallel, explanations for the improbable four-game winning streak that has put the Redskins into the playoffs.
``The first one I would say is losing Sean and coming together as a team,'' receiver Antwaan Randle El said Monday. ``That being said, the second would be Todd. Because when you lose a leader in your quarterback, it's a hard spot to fill - I don't care who you are.''
No quarterback in the NFC has played better than Collins since he replaced injured starter Jason Campbell in the first half against Chicago on Dec. 6. Collins led all the scoring drives in that game and has been nearly flawless since, completing 64 percent of his passes with five touchdowns, no interceptions and a 106.4 rating in winning four back-against-the-wall contests.
``You couldn't expect him to play any better,'' coach Joe Gibbs said.
Yet this is the boyish-faced quarterback with the quirky, dry-wit personality who spouts useless bits of trivia and went an NFL-record 10 years between starts. Just when it appeared his teammates had poked fun at him in every way imaginable, they came up with two more zingers Monday.
``He kind of puts me in the mind of the guy from 'The 40-Year-Old Virgin,''' said linebacker Marcus Washington, referring to the Steve Carell movie. ``It's kind of the same comedy with Todd. He's a funny guy.''
``He's kind of like Cliff Clavin from 'Cheers,''' long snapper Ethan Albright said. ``He knows all kind of stuff. Sometimes I don't know if he's telling the truth or not, but I don't know enough to challenge him on it.''
Yeah, but no one could ever imagine Clavin, the trivia-loving but sometimes-annoying mailman, leading a football huddle.
``Well, he's done a better job delivering the mail lately than Cliff has, right?'' guard Pete Kendall said. ``You know what? The thing that he seemingly knows best is this system. Some of the other minutiae about international fishing treaties and other stuff you may get from Todd are all well and good, but it doesn't come at the expense of knowing when he has to throw hot.''
Whether it's the hot read or the fly pattern, the offense is livelier, more efficient and more daring with Collins under center. He'll call for a shift with only 8 seconds left on the play clock, confident he'll still have time to get off the play. He's finding receivers Campbell never spotted, particularly Clinton Portis, who is having a career receiving year out of the backfield. Gibbs is letting him throw downfield with a lead rather than retreating into a shell and giving the other team a chance to catch up.
``Todd opens things up for everybody,'' Portis said. ``You never know who's getting the ball now. So if you think you're on the route that's not coming to you, you'd better go full speed, because Todd will hit you right upside the head with the ball.''
There's little doubt the 36-year-old Collins, who learned assistant coach Al Saunders' thick playbook cover-to-cover when the two were in Kansas City, is getting far more leeway than the 26-year-old Campbell, who had 20 career starts before dislocating his kneecap against the Bears.
``When Jason was in, they still had a little bit of that spoon-feeding - or not really pulling it off and letting him go,'' Randle El said. ``And I think that has a lot to do with it, in terms of cutting him loose and giving him freedom.''
Collins is a story of true perseverance. Consensus says he didn't get a fair shake in his only previous stint as a starter, as the heir apparent to Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly with the Buffalo Bills in 1997. Collins was cut the following year.
A decade later, he is preparing for his first playoff start Saturday at Seattle with the calm air of a veteran Pro Bowler.
``There were difficult times, there's no question about it,'' said Collins, who threw only 27 passes over eight seasons as a backup in Kansas City. ``A lot of times the game isn't fun and it's just all work. You work, work, then the reward is the game, and for so many years I put in the work as if I was going to play and didn't get the reward in the game.
``You've just really got to believe before you can do. And I believed if I really worked hard and hung around long enough I was going to get my chance, and when my chance came I wanted to be ready. And I think I was.''
If the Redskins' success continues, Gibbs will have a dilemma. Campbell is still the quarterback for the long-term, but would the coach dare bench someone playing as well as Collins? And will the Redskins re-sign Collins in the offseason, when he's slated to be a free agent who should attract offers?
Gibbs is at least one more week away from having to answer those questions. Campbell isn't yet healthy enough to be on the game-day active roster.
``I think there's a long ways to go there,'' Gibbs said.
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