“To be a champ you have to believe in yourself when no one else will.” – Sugar Ray Robinson
“Getting hit motivates me. It makes me punish the guy more. A fighter takes a punch, hits back with three punches.” – Roberto “Hands of Stone” Duran
“Well, there goes the Giants’ chances of winning the Super Bowl,” I still remember saying to myself after hearing the news of cornerback Terrell Thomas tearing his ACL before the 2011 season began. As a Falcons fan, I had grown accustomed to major injuries to key players at key positions derailing an entire season.
This year, the Falcons have lost five starting players to season-ending injuries, and none more important than Desmond Trufant. Losing one of the best corners in the league in Week 9 should have been a crushing loss, even more so considering he was one of the most experienced players the Falcons started on a very young defense. Why it wasn’t is perhaps one of the most overlooked reasons the Falcons are one win away from becoming NFL Champions.
Jalen Collins had a very slow start to his NFL career. He was considered by many to be a first-round talent, even though he had little experience starting in college and had a fractured foot which would keep him out of rookie camp and early OTAs. There were some off-field concerns, too. The Falcons snagged him in the second round, drafting him ahead of Tevin Coleman and Justin Hardy. This season, while Coleman was avoiding defenders like a wildebeest escaping predators, and Hardy was making clutch first down catches, Collins wasn’t even playing. He was an afterthought.
But Dan Quinn, although concerned, hadn’t given up on him after a disappointing rookie season, and a four-game suspension to start the year, like many fans did. Player development, seemingly an undeniable foundation for success in any professional league, was somewhat of a stranger to football fields at Flowery Branch. One of the biggest weaknesses of the Mike Smith era was a lack of faith the coaches had in young players. Obviously, this led to a lack of depth, something that is crippling when the game itself requires grown men to slam into each other on every play. Quinn and Co., on the other hand, boost these young players’ confidence and have put in the extra work necessary to make them better every single day. Quinn calls this focus “Plan D.”
It’s fruits are evident, from Matt Ryan down to Rashede Hageman, another player many fans had given up on but is now playing his best football at the perfect time. But no other player more exemplifies Plan D than Jalen Collins, who has improved steadily in each game he has started since Week 10. Early on, he had trouble getting his head around to make plays on the ball. He’s gotten much better at that while becoming more consistent in other phases. But Jalen is also the embodiment of the Quinn philosophy: He’s fast. He’s physical. (Ask Jameis Winston.) He’s all about the ball.
Collins made what quite possibly could be the most pivotal play in the NFC Championship Game when he stripped Aaron Ripkowski and recovered the ball in the endzone. This is nothing new, however. Collins has demonstrated a nose for the ball, being instrumental in four forced turnovers in the last four games. The Falcons are forcing almost twice as many turnovers the last half of the season as they did in the first half, and Collins has been an integral part of a second half defensive surge.
From forgotten to starting in Super Bowl LI is an amazing turnaround. In a way, Jalen Collins is a microcosm of the 2016 Atlanta Falcons’ season. It seemed that no one believed. But every mistake and every loss sparked this team to push further and punch back even harder. Analysts and experts expect Tom Brady to pick on Jalen Collins, Sunday. He will surrender some yards and catches, and maybe even a big play or two. He is not Desmond Trufant, but he doesn’t need to be. In the biggest fight yet, one turnover may be the deciding factor in which team is crowned champions of the world. Jalen Collins could be the one to make that play. Don’t be surprised if it happens. It’s not how you start, but how you finish.