Kolb shows signs he's ready to lead

BETHLEHEM, Pa. – Kevin Kolb(notes) was spending Easter Sunday alone in his Philadelphia-area home, watching a fishing show on his DVR and staring at an uncertain future, when he heard his cell phone ring and saw Eagles coach Andy Reid's number pop up on the screen.

This is it, the young quarterback thought to himself. Either I just got handed the keys to Andy's offense, or I might as well call the movers and start packing.

Reid ended the suspense immediately, telling Kolb: "Hey, bud, I just made you the starting quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles."

Twenty minutes later, the rest of the world learned what had triggered Kolb's promotion. The Eagles had traded Donovan McNabb(notes), the franchise's all-time passing leader – not to mention a six-time Pro Bowl selection who led Philly to five NFC championship games and a Super Bowl appearance in his 11 seasons – to the rival Washington Redskins for a pair of draft picks, including a 2010 second-round selection.

Kolb, a second-round pick in '07, had just inherited the most pressure-packed job in America's least-forgiving sports town.

In other words, his prayers had been answered. As Kolb said Sunday morning following the Eagles' training-camp practice at Lehigh University, "Everything's different, but it's a good change. I'm the starter now. And I'm looking forward to doing this for a long, long time in the future."

Aside from a pair of reasonably impressive starts in place of the injured McNabb last September, Kolb hasn't done much to attract the attention of outsiders. But within the Eagles' universe, where Reid and general manager Howie Roseman have assembled a roster rife with young, talented playmakers (including running back LeSean McCoy(notes) and wide receivers DeSean Jackson(notes) and Jeremy Maclin(notes)), there's an overwhelming sense that Kolb is ready to lead.

"He takes command of the offense," tight end Brent Celek(notes) says of Kolb. "I think the whole country will be [surprised]. I really don't like to talk about it too much. Our attitude is, 'Let's do it as a team. Let's prove it to everybody.'"

Says second-year wideout Maclin: "For a guy who hasn't played much in this league, he definitely shows a lot of leadership ability and poise in the huddle. I'll put it like this: I'm not thinking about the future; I'm thinking about the present. Why put off something we can do now 'till later?"

That was Reid's attitude after a season which ended with the Eagles suffering consecutive lopsided defeats to the NFC East rival Dallas Cowboys, the latter a 34-14 thrashing in the first round of the playoffs. All three quarterbacks on Philly's '09 roster had contracts expiring after the 2010 season, and Reid and Roseman were determined to make a move.

Though they fielded trade offers for all three passers – "We didn't put a for-sale sign up," Reid says, "but we sat back and let people come to us and kind of evaluated what was best" – the psychic move to Kolb had already been made. It became official on Easter as Kolb kicked back at home, having flown back to Philly earlier that morning from Texas, where his wife, Whitney, and their two young daughters stayed behind to continue visiting relatives.

"I was trying not to pay attention to stuff in the media," says Kolb, who takes over the fifth-highest scoring offense (26.8 ppg) from '09, "but I knew that one way or the other, something was about to happen."

In truth, the switch to Kolb could have happened much earlier. In November of '08, the struggling Eagles trailed the Baltimore Ravens 10-7 at halftime when Reid made the decision to yank McNabb, who was in the midst of a second straight bad start. Had Kolb given Philly a second-half spark, he likely would have started the following week. But he completed just 10 of 23 passes for 73 yards and threw a pair of interceptions, one of which Ravens safety Ed Reed(notes) returned 108 yards for a touchdown, as Baltimore rolled to a 36-7 victory.

"There's nothing more intense than going up against the No. 1 defense in the NFL and having Ray Lewis(notes) staring at you from across the line saying he's gonna break your neck," Reid says, imagining the star middle linebacker's taunts.

Says Kolb of Lewis: "He wasn't too bad. On one play he was chasing me and I tried to make a play downfield, and he got a good shot in on me. He might've said something. … I was disappointed I didn't play better, not just for the future but in terms of being able to do my job."

The next week McNabb returned and rallied the Eagles, then 5-5-1, on an unlikely playoff run that ended with a narrow defeat to the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC championship game.

Kolb, to his credit, shook off his choppy outing, took steps to eradicate his errors and waited for his next opportunity.

"He'd never been a relief pitcher before," Reid says. "It was a tremendous learning experience for him. One thing he's very good at is, when he makes a mistake, correcting it and not making it again. All of a sudden he said, 'Oh, I get it.' It was something he could put in the learning file. And last year, when I called on him in the second and third game, he was ready to go."

After McNabb suffered a cracked rib during the Eagles' season-opening victory over the Carolina Panthers last September, Kolb put up big numbers in a 48-22 defeat to the New Orleans Saints and a 34-14 triumph over the Kansas City Chiefs. Though he was intercepted three times by the Saints, he became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for at least 300 yards in each of his first two career starts, earning NFC offensive player of the week honors for his effort against the Chiefs.

Kolb's transformation from the previous November, says offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, was pronounced.

Kolb was treated harshly by Lewis' Ravens.
(Geoff Burke/US Presswire)

"He learned some hard lessons from that [Baltimore] game," Mornhinweg says. "There was one play in that game against a blitz where he made a mistake, threw to the wrong receiver and the ball was deflected away on third down. In the Kansas City game, same situation, he got it to the right receiver for a 12-yard gain."

Though McNabb returned to finish out the '09 season, Kolb had already proven to his coach that he was capable of leading the team.

"You know what? I really didn't have any reservations about him going in and being the starter those two games [last year], so I guess it happened before that," says Reid, going into his 12th season with the Eagles. "But if it hadn't happened before that, those two games would have sealed it."

The Eagles made sure Kolb was signed, sealed and delivered as their new franchise quarterback in the wake of the McNabb trade, giving him a one-year, $12.26-million contract extension through the 2011 season. Though he's not big on speeches or ostentatious displays of status-flexing, Kolb has since made his presence felt on both sides of the ball.

"He's the guy now," middle linebacker Stewart Bradley(notes) says of Kolb, with whom he often engages in friendly trash-talk during practice. "We're all behind him. He's a competitor. That's one of his best assets. He's a go-get-'em type of guy – not necessarily a rah-rah guy, but you can see the fire. It's almost like he brings a defensive mentality on offense."

Says Michael Vick(notes), who returns for another season to serve as Kolb's primary backup: "Kevin's a great guy and a great player. You have to respect his work ethic. He totally understands what it's about. He was around Donovan for three years. He knows what it takes to be a starter in this league."

Kolb won't have the luxury of easing into his dream job. With McNabb just down the road in D.C. and set to face the Eagles twice a year, he'll be judged instantly and sternly by a fan base notorious for harsh assessments of high-profile athletes.

His coach believes Kolb can handle the pressure.

"I know there are going to be ups and downs, and I expect that," Reid says. "I expect there to be a learning curve. He'll make mistakes, and I have confidence that he'll get things corrected and it won't happen again. So yes, there will be bumps, but that's OK. This is a team sport."