With McNabb shadow still looming large, Kolb faces tough task

PHILADELPHIA -- You walk through the Philadelphia Eagles' practice facility at NovaCare Complex, and decades of history -- captured in black-and-white and color photographs on the walls -- are everywhere. Poster-sized newspaper and magazine pages, with photos and headlines documenting memorable Eagles moments, are everywhere.

It doesn't take long to find the first image of Donovan McNabb. Or the second. Or the third. Yes, he is everywhere, too.

Not just his face, but his aura. When the greatest quarterback in franchise history walks out the door for good, he tends to leave a little more in his wake than an empty cubicle in the locker room. There is constant discussion and debate among fans and media -- especially in a town where sporting opinions are as pronounced as the accent that turns Eagles into Iggles -- about what he did, what he didn't do, and where the team is headed without him.

What no one disputes is that things are different. Very different.

For instance, it was impossible to watch the Eagles go through drills during their recent minicamp and not think about McNabb's absence. It was impossible to watch Kevin Kolb, the Eagles' new starting quarterback, and not think about the enormous cleats he's attempting to fill.

That will come into even greater focus once the season begins. So will judgments about whether this was a good move or a colossal mistake. Figure on them only intensifying Oct. 3 and Nov. 15, when McNabb, wearing a Washington Redskins uniform, will be doing all that he can to try and beat the team with which he spent 11 seasons, threw for 32,873 yards, and 216 touchdowns. Whatever pressure Kolb might be feeling now is going to be tenfold by then.

"To be honest, I haven't even thought about it yet; that's so far out of my mind," Kolb said. "I'm trying to block all of those things out of my mind. I'm trying to focus on what's between the white lines. So I think if I can continue to focus that way and continue to hone in on those things, then that'll help me get through the season and help us be successful.

"I think the biggest thing is all eyes are on you. You're trying to prove to your guys right off the bat that they made the right decision, and that you're the guy that can lead them to many victories and a Super Bowl. But at the same time, you're trying to keep it simple and just do what you do as a quarterback and a player."

A sensible approach, to be certain. But for everyone around Kolb, there is no ignoring the giant elephant that has taken up residence in whatever space he has occupied since Easter Sunday, when the Eagles sent shockwaves through the NFL by trading McNabb to an NFC East rival and handing the No. 1 quarterback spot to Kolb. How Kolb handles the glare of scrutiny is likely to go a long way toward determining how the Eagles will fare in the first year of the post-McNabb era.

"I think that's a part of it right now," Eagles coach Andy Reid said. "You anticipate that he's going to be able to handle it, but he hasn't done it. That's the bottom line: He hasn't had to do that part yet. And that's a challenge. That's a part of the challenge that's before him, but from the indicators that we have, we think he can and will handle that."

The indicators include Kolb's only two starts since joining the Eagles in 2007 as a second-round draft pick from the University of Houston. While replacing an injured McNabb in back-to-back games last season, he threw for 391 yards in a loss to New Orleans and 327 yards in a win over Kansas City. Reid and the Eagles' coaches also are going on what Kolb has displayed in other brief appearances in regular-season games, in preseason outings, in practices, and in the meeting room.

More than any other position, quarterback involves growth and development. Reid and the rest of the Eagles' brass were convinced they had seen enough of it from Kolb to make what easily stood alone as the boldest decision of the offseason ... until NFL owners picked New York/New Jersey for a Super Bowl.

"Number one, he's got a feel for the game; I think all good quarterbacks have to have that," Reid said. "You've got to have the athletic ability to play the position; I think he has that. I think the aptitude is an important quality to have, where you can digest the scheme -- not only the offensive scheme, but the defensive scheme they run against you. And then we get to see him day in and day out here for the last few years, and you just kind of like the way he handles things."

What Reid and the rest of the Eagles' offensive coaches like best about Kolb is that, based on his skills, he is arguably a better fit than McNabb for their West Coast scheme. McNabb obviously had tremendous success, but his greatest assets are an ultra-powerful arm and mobility. Kolb doesn't have McNabb's arm strength, nor is he particularly mobile. But Kolb throws with better accuracy than McNabb. He also is more consistently efficient.

Those qualities serve a quarterback well in the most traditional form of the West Coast attack, to which the Eagles are switching. Most of the time, Kolb will be asked to attempt high-percentage short and intermediate throws that exploit gaps and seams in coverage. Unlike McNabb, he won't often be challenging defenders on deep routes, relying on speedy playmakers such as DeSean Jackson to beat someone outside and streak under a bomb. Kolb's big plays should mostly result from the yards that the receiver is able to produce after the catch.

Kolb's backup, Michael Vick, has made 68 starts in seven NFL seasons, the first six of which were with the Atlanta Falcons. He has a bigger arm and, now that he is back in football shape after being incarcerated for his involvement in dogfighting, much greater mobility. Still, the Eagles are convinced their best option is to go with a starting quarterback with only two career starts.

Can any player, let alone a quarterback, truly feel ready for a full-time starting spot after only two games in that capacity?

"Yeah," Kolb said without hesitation. "The first thing it gives you is confidence; you know you can play in this league now. Two series can do that for you if you're out there long enough. The second play of the first drive (of the New Orleans game), I said, 'I got this.' I knew that I could play at this level. I knew that I belonged. And I knew I could be a starter.

"Now, at the same time, this is a totally different role for me. I knew I was filling in for a short period of time then. Now, I'm the guy that everybody is looking at, the guy that's taken hold of this thing, so it is a different approach. But at the same time, the confidence level's there from those two games."

Each day since the beginning of offseason workouts, Eagles assistant head coach/offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg and Kolb pick out a general or specific area of the quarterback's game to which he must give extra attention. The idea, Mornhinweg said, is to "get better every day at something and accomplish something every day." Recently, for instance, they zeroed in on the first step of Kolb's retreat after taking the snap. By the next day, they were satisfied that it had improved.

Last week, Kolb received additional critiquing from his former coach at Houston, Art Briles, who now coaches Baylor. Reid invited Briles and his assistant coaches to observe minicamp practices. Briles spent the majority of time watching his former quarterback. Briles noticed that Kolb was "falling out of a few throws," and reminded him to make sure he shifted his weight forward and got his shoulders "downhill" while rolling out.

"He saw me getting a little bit lazy with my technique," Kolb said. "You're talking about fundamentals this time of year. This is the time of year where all the little things that get away from you during the season, you have to hone back in on those things so that when the season does come, you're not worrying about them."

Minicamp workouts provide ample opportunities for Kolb to demonstrate his capacity to do what, more than anything, defines successful quarterbacking: Overcoming adversity. Surrounded by rookies and other younger players on the fringes of the roster, he's bound to encounter frustrating glitches, and he has.

During one blitz drill, Kolb took the snap, dropped back, and just stood in the pocket holding the ball. He couldn't find an open receiver. He didn't scramble. He didn't throw out of bounds. To no one's surprise, a defender knifed through and yanked the ball right out of Kolb's hands.

Later, in shotgun formation, the center delivered the ball when Kolb wasn't ready for it and it ended up on the ground.

But Kolb didn't show any signs of unraveling. He calmly discussed the hiccups with other players and coaches, and pressed on.

"You've heard the term, 'Never let them see you sweat?' Kevin's pretty good at that," Mornhinweg said. "We make a mistake, we get it corrected immediately. Find the solution and move on very quickly. And he's very good at that."

Said Kolb, "I think guys want to see your emotions, see that you care, but at the same time they can't see you panic. That's a line that a quarterback always has to walk. And for me, I'm always paying close attention to how my teammates react to it and what they want to see from me."

What they will see, he insists, is the same guy who has been here since '07. What they won't see is someone trying to imitate McNabb or going out of his way to sound like he's taking charge.

Kolb doesn't hesitate to talk with players on the field beyond calling plays. In fact, he does more of that than McNabb did. But he is conscious of not going too far over the top with it. He sees his leadership being far more effective if he is gradual about showing it.

"The biggest mistake that a lot of guys make is they try to get up there and they try to get vocal and it's something that they don't do," Kolb said. "They didn't do that in the past, and (their teammates) don't want to see a drastic change. For me, it's lead by example. I've been telling them the whole time, 'Hey, we're one unit now. We're all together, one group, one unit.' I think if you try to over-exaggerate things, then it's not going to be truthful and it's not going to be pure.

"We're going to grow into those roles and we're going to find our pieces for this offense and this team. But I think you've got to let it come. You can't force the issue."

That same mentality goes for filling the gaping void created by the departure of the best quarterback the team has ever had.

There is no minimizing the fact Kolb's teammates who shared the field with McNabb are undergoing a change in culture. Some are more than ready for it. Jackson, for one, thinks the Eagles are better off without McNabb. The rest will likely go with the flow, because that's the way it works in the NFL.

"Listen, Donovan did it better than anybody," Reid said. "But I think these guys are so programmed now for a change in this league that they go, 'OK, that phase is over. Now let's go.' Now, as long as the player that's stepping in handles himself the right way, or has handled himself the right way, then it's a smooth transition.

"Are there people here that love Donovan McNabb? Absolutely. They also love Kevin Kolb and the way he has handled things up to this point."

Where it goes from here will determine just how large McNabb's aura continues to loom in this town.

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