CHARLOTTE — In 2006, the Titans signed 33-year-old Kerry Collins, because they needed someone they could trust to mentor their first-round quarterback Vince Young.
They wanted someone who could play competently and capably right then in case the rookie wasn’t ready, but mostly someone who would show the future of the franchise what it looked like to be a leader until he was prepared to take over.
Over New Year’s week in 1993, Steelers defensive coordinator Dom Capers spent his bye week before the divisional round of the playoffs holed up in his office in Three Rivers Stadium, game-planning for the Houston Oilers the next week in the playoffs.
He was playing the percentages, and prepping for their division rival because he knew the Oilers were facing a Bills team without future Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly, who was out with a knee injury. When the Oilers rolled out to a 35-3 lead in that Jan. 3 wild card game, it looked like he had made a good decision.
But in both instances, Frank Reich turned out to be the pivot, the man who influenced the course of their respective histories, though they might not have realized it at the time.
Both Collins and Capers gushed about Reich moments after he became the Panthers’ new head coach Thursday, knowing the impact he had on both their careers in ways they could never have seen at the time.
“I knew what to do in Tennessee, because of Frank,” Collins said plainly.
“I never did that again in my life, and it was because of Frank,” Capers said of all that prep work for the Oilers he never got to use because Reich conducted what was (until recently) the biggest comeback in NFL history.
The Frank Reich who walked into the Panthers’ lives in 1995 was different than the one who walked in on Thursday.
Back then, he was the original starting quarterback in team history, the guy hand-picked by general manager Bill Polian to lead the team onto the field for the first game.
When the Panthers signed him on March 27, 1995, the 34-year-old Reich knew it was largely a temporary assignment. Polian said when he signed the former Bills backup (whom he had also signed to his rookie contract in 1985), it was made clear to Reich that the plan was to draft a young quarterback to develop. They didn’t know at the time it was going to be Collins, but the Hall of Fame executive said regardless of who the rookie was, he trusted him in the hands of a guy who showed in Buffalo he knew how to lead.
“That’s Frank Reich; he’s the epitome of a mentor,” Polian said. “That’s why we brought him to Carolina, because we knew we wanted to bring in a young quarterback, and there’s no one better to show a young quarterback what it means to be a pro. And he went a long way toward helping build what we did there in 1995.
“And it’s mostly because of his quality as a person. He’s as fine a person as I’ve ever known in the game. He’s right there with men like Marv Levy, men like Tony Dungy, and men like Dom Capers.
“And that comes through in everything he does.”
For Polian, building an expansion team included a lot of familiar faces from his time in Buffalo. But Reich was foremost in his mind, since he knew the plan was also to draft a quarterback.
Polian knew he had the first pick, but didn’t know which way he’d end up going. The Panthers eventually traded back with the Bengals, who wanted to get to No. 1 to take running back Ki-Jana Carter (it was a different NFL back then).
Polian got an extra second-round pick in the deal, which he wanted as he was building a first-year team. And with the fifth overall pick, after Steve McNair went off the board third overall to the Oilers, the Panthers took Collins, a fresh-faced kid with a big arm from Penn State, the kind of classic profile of a quarterback. That was the guy; that was the priority, and how Reich’s contract was built suggested how things might go.
It was a one-year deal with a cool $1 million in base salary. There was another $200,000 in roster bonuses for the preseason and regular season, and then incentives that would pay him another $30,000 for each game of the regular season in which he played at least 52 percent of the offensive snaps.
Reich cashed in three of those before it was time for Collins to take over. He also earned every nickel. In the first game in franchise history, he was sacked nine times. Which, when an expansion team prioritized building with a veteran defense, you kind of expected. The Panthers’ starting line that game was a collection of odd parts, including rookie Blake Brockermeyer at left tackle and journeyman Derrick Graham at right tackle (whose fateful false start on a two-point conversion might have cost them a win in that first game).
“There was never any doubt in my mind that Frank had the kind of character and leadership and the ability to bring the best out of a new group of people,” Capers said. “He knew exactly what the situation was, and he handled it well. You’re always concerned about playing a young quarterback too soon, especially in a situation where an expansion team wasn’t going to be strong at every position.
“But he handled it the way you’d want a guy to, and his demeanor was a big part of what we did. Even though our situation on offense wasn’t perfect, Frank gave us a chance to be competitive right off the bat.”
The Panthers lost those first three games, and Capers might have accelerated the timeline a bit on Collins.
And while that might have created a strange dynamic for a guy who came here expecting to play regularly after being in Kelly’s shadow for so long, Collins never picked up on that in the meeting room.
“It really was a unique situation, and he had every right to be bitter; he could have been jaded about the whole thing,” Collins said. “I mean, he came here, and he was getting ready to play all year. He could have done his own thing the whole time. But he was great for a young quarterback like me because he was so professional. He was never anything but positive about the whole situation.
“Everybody knew I’d be playing eventually, even though we didn’t know when. When they finally did it in Week 4, I remember him being disappointed, but I never got the feeling he wasn’t rooting for me or wasn’t rooting for the team. He just handled everything with such class the whole way.”
That, coupled with a bit of hometown connection, created a bond between Reich and Collins that ran a little deeper than some on a team thrown together on the fly.
Reich grew up in Lebanon, Pa., and starred at Cedar Crest High (making Pennsylvania’s prestigious Big 33 Football Classic following his senior year). Collins grew up across town, and began at rival Wilson High. So when the Panthers were working out at the team’s initial facility in the Winthrop Coliseum in Rock Hill, S.C., there was always a little friendly banter about the high school scores each week.
Collins said he had never met Reich before they came together in the Carolinas, but watching him play back in the day nearly influenced his own college decision.
“I mean, you know about Frank growing up, watched him play, and I almost went to Maryland because of him,” Collins said. “You remember the big comeback game (against Miami) and all the numbers he put up there, and that made a big impression on me.”
But not nearly the kind of impression he made on him once they were teammates.
Collins admittedly needed some time to mature (his own journey in the NFL was a complicated one), but he said with the benefit of hindsight, the way Reich treated him in 1995 was important to his career. When his own days with the Panthers ended poorly, Collins went through a brief stop with the Saints, before finding himself and some stability with the Giants.
He went into 1999 as their backup, but eventually replaced Kent Graham and started for them in 2000 when they went to Super Bowl XXXV against the Raven. They lost that one, as Baltimore put up 34 points on Giants coordinator John Fox’s defense.
By 2004, the Giants had Kurt Warner on hand and drafted Eli Manning first overall, so Collins was released, and spent a couple of years with the Raiders. He was out of football for much of the 2006 offseason before the Titans called him in late August, signing after the end of training camp so they could keep the pressure off Young, the third-overall pick.
Collins spent five years in Tennessee (and went 12-3 as the starter in 2008 after Young was injured), a good run for a guy called in late.
When he thinks back on it, Collins said the way he treated Young (the national championship-winning rookie from Texas) was influenced by how Reich treated him in 1995.
“There is a point in your career where you realize you’re the vet now,” Collins said. “Even if I didn’t know it at the time in Carolina, it was huge for me having a guy like Frank, and I got a lot out of that just by seeing how he handled things. Frank was more entrenched with the Panthers than I was when I got to Tennessee late, but it’s all the same principles.
“I remember just telling Vince, ‘Hey, I’m here if you want to talk, but I’m not going to be all up in your business. I’m going to be available to you.’ That’s the way Frank was with me, and it made a huge difference.”
While his Panthers career was short, Reich’s impact was real. After Collins took over, the Panthers won seven of their final 11 games in 1995, setting the stage for the NFC West title and a run to the NFC Championship Game in their second year of existence.
But the memories of those late nights in his office in Pittsburgh were burned into Capers’ memory when he and Polian went to work building the expansion team going into the inaugural year.
“I had to throw all that work on the Oilers right down the trash,” Capers laughed when he recalled all the wasted hours he spent prepping for a game that never happened, not after Reich brought the Bills back to win 41-38.
Reich and the Bills would then beat Capers’ Steelers the following week, and that left an impression too.
While there were coach-like qualities about Reich — “We saw that early on in Buffalo,” Polian said. “He was absolutely a coach-in-the-making.” — the fact was, Reich could also play.
Capers described him as more efficient than prolific, clearly not blessed with the same talent as Kelly, but still able to make that offense work.
“When he was in there for the Bills, he was always making the right decisions,” Capers said. “He didn’t have the same kind of arm as Kelly, not many people did, but the ball was always in the right place.”
So when he thinks about Reich sliding into the office he once sat in, Capers thinks Reich has found himself in the right place again.
“I couldn’t be happier, for him or the Panthers,” Capers said. “I don’t think they could have found a better man than Frank. I’ve been a fan of his for a long time, but mostly, it’s just because he’s such a quality person.”
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29 Jul 1995: Quarterback Frank Reich of the Carolina Panthers passes the ball during the Hall of Fame Game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Fawcett Stadium in Canton, Ohio. The Panthers won the game, 20-14. Mandatory Credit: Julian Gonzales /Allspor
Julian H. Gonzalez
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Carolina Panthers quarterback Frank Reich (14) prepares to throw a pass against the Buffalo Bills in Orchard Park, NY, Sep. 10, 1995. The Bills defeated the Panthers 31-9. (Paul Spinelli via AP)
Paul Spinelli/NFL Photos/Paul Spinelli/NFL Photos
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Paul Spinelli/NFL Photos
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10 Sep 1995: Quarterback Jim Kelly of the Buffalo Bills (left) confers with Carolina Panthers quarterback Frank Reich during a game at Rich Stadium in Orchard Park, New York. The Bills won the game, 31-9.
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10 Sep 1995: Quarterback Frank Reich of the Carolina Panthers looks on during a game against the Buffalo Bills at Rich Stadium in Orchard Park, New York. The Bills won the game, 31-9. Mandatory Credit: Rick Stewart /Allsport
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SAN FRANCISCO, CA – AUGUST 19: Quarterback Frank Reich #14 of the Carolina Panthers takes the snap during the exhibition game against the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park on August 19, 1995 in San Francisco, California. The 49ers won 17-10. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)
George Rose/1995 Getty Images
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10 Sep 1995: Quarterback Frank Reich of the Carolina Panthers drops back to pass during the Panthers 31-9 loss to the Buffalo Bills at Rich Stadium in Orchard Park, New York. Mandatory Credit: Rick Stewart/ALLSPORT
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SAN FRANCISCO, CA – AUGUST 19: Quarterback Frank Reich #14 of the Carolina Panthers looks to pass during the exhibition game against the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park on August 19, 1995 in San Francisco, California. The 49ers won 17-10. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)
George Rose/1995 Getty Images
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SAN FRANCISCO, CA – AUGUST 19: Quarterback Frank Reich #14 of the Carolina Panthers drops back to handoff during the exhibition game against the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park on August 19, 1995 in San Francisco, California. The 49ers won 17-10. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)
George Rose/1995 Getty Images
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17 Sep 1995: Quarterback Frank Reich #14 of the Carolina Panthers prepares to pass against the St. Louis Rams during a game held at Memorial Stadium in Clemson, South Carolina. The Rams won the game, 31-10. Mandatory Credit: Craig Jones /Allsport