A tough Texan who can take down a boar with a Bowie knife, Kevin Kolb isn't scared off by the pressure of succeeding Donovan McNabb in Philly
Philadelphia does not always fully embrace its star athletes. Donovan McNabb, for one. And by all standards he was a pretty good quarterback. Folks in the Eagles' organization think Kevin Kolb is pretty good too. The fans? They're not so quick to commit. You could hear the whispers of doubt in the stands at Lehigh University on the first day of camp. The die-hards might not have loved McNabb, but they were pretty sure he was going to take them to the playoffs every year. No one can say that with certainty about the new guy. Why let a 33-year-old QB who'd led the team to five conference title games go for a player who's started two games in three seasons? One whose name is even hard to figure? (It's pronounced Cobb.)
All of August, Kolb has been addressing those concerns. His strength is supposed to be the short pass, the ability to put the ball where playmakers want it. But on the second throw of that very first practice, he hits DeSean Jackson for a 70-yard touchdown. "People keep calling me a West Coast quarterback," Kolb says, "but I think I can do a lot more."
After a string of completions, however, Kolb fires the ball directly into linebacker Stewart Bradley's chest for an interception, and 8,000 fans hold their breath. McNabb has the third-best interception ratio in NFL history; Kolb has thrown just 130 passes in NFL games—and already has had two interceptions returned for touchdowns of more than 95 yards.
He's going to make mistakes. Though Kolb is a quick study, there's a lot he hasn't seen yet, and he'll throw into dangerous places more often than McNabb. But when McNabb hit rough patches, things tended to deteriorate quickly. Last season, in successive blowout losses to Dallas in the regular-season finale and wild-card playoffs, McNabb spiraled down after early miscues. In the wake of the first Cowboys loss he caused a stir in Philly by seeming to place blame on his young receiving corps: "We showed our youth in situations where everyone began to look around to see who was going to make the play, instead of stepping up." Back at practice, Kolb isn't blaming anyone but himself for hitting Bradley between the numbers. The fastest he has moved all morning was chasing the linebacker down on the return.
And he's not the type to dwell on a mistake. On the next play Kolb steps into pressure and lofts the ball 50 yards into what seems like an empty area. At the last moment Jackson glides past two defenders and stretches out for the diving catch.
Relax, Philly. Nothing to see here. Different quarterback, same Eagles offense. On to the next play. "One of the things that makes me feel good about Kevin is he's a pretty cool cucumber," coach Andy Reid says. "He doesn't get too high or too low. You saw it today. He's able to shake things off. You have to have that short memory as a quarterback."
Kolb wears number 4, like another southern quarterback with whom Reid worked, and he has a hint of that Brett Favre confidence as he talks after practice about the Bradley interception. "What makes me mad is that, presnap, I knew the look," Kolb says. "I knew it was coming. I just got a little greedy. It happens when you start to feel it."
A three-year starter at Texas 4A powerhouse Stephenville High, Kolb had committed to Oklahoma State but switched to Houston when his former coach Art Briles (now at Baylor) took over the Cougars. Kolb knew he could put up huge numbers in Briles's system and didn't care that Houston had a reputation for creating quarterbacks who disappointed at the next level because, he says, "I never had an eye on the NFL." But after he threw 25 touchdowns and just six picks as a freshman in 2003, his eyes began to open to a bigger world. "I was shocked when I started hearing J.P. Losman [another Conference USA quarterback, from Tulane] was going to be a first-round pick," Kolb says. "I started thinking, Wow, maybe I can too."
Kolb had played in front of large crowds on Friday nights at Stephenville, so starting in Division I as a freshman never fazed him. Briles waited until just before the first game to break the news to his young quarterback, so there'd be no time to worry. "I told Kevin, and he said, 'O.K.' I took about 10 steps and then came back to make sure I'd been clear, because he didn't really react. He just said, 'I heard you, Coach. Let's go.'"
Reid got a similar response on April 4 when he informed Kolb that the Eagles had traded McNabb. As Kolb describes it, "He called me 20 minutes before the news broke on ESPN. He said, 'Hey, buddy, I just made you starting quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles.' I said, 'Great.' That was about it." Over the following months, quarterback and coach texted each other to get fired up and exchange barbs. "Coach is a funny dude," says Kolb. "We make each other laugh."
"I'd shoot him a text every once in a while to get his attention," Reid says. "I just wanted to remind him he was quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles and give him a little zing."
In truth, Kolb's success or failure is serious business for Reid. His coaching career has been defined by his relationships with his quarterbacks. His work with Favre in Green Bay put him on the radar for the Eagles' job, and his first major move in Philly, more than a decade ago, was to draft McNabb. Some thought Reid wouldn't be able to let McNabb go, even as the Eagles got younger. "I love Donovan McNabb," Reid says. "He helped our franchise become what it has become. On the other hand, I'm looking forward to starting anew with Kevin Kolb."
Lots of NFL players are big outdoorsmen. The Vikings' Jared Allen, the Browns' Joe Thomas and Kolb's teammate Trent Cole even have their own hunting or fishing shows. Asked which player has the best outdoor skills, Kolb says, "Me, by far."
In fact, Kolb is developing his own fishing program, and he competes in bass tournaments in the off-season. Ask his friends about him, and the anecdotes often end with Kolb inflicting bodily harm on a potentially dangerous animal. He has raised eyebrows among coaches and teammates with stories about killing wild hogs with a bowie knife. "They're a big deal here in South Texas," Briles says of the hogs, "and lots of people hunt them. I couldn't figure out why my quarterback was killing hogs with a knife instead of a gun like everyone else. But that's just Kevin. He's pretty well grounded in who he is. That's one of the reasons I don't think the pressure of being an NFL quarterback will get to him."
Kolb's off-season home in Granbury, Texas, sits on a lake about an hour southwest of Fort Worth—and light years from Chickie's & Pete's and the other Eagles hot spots in South Philly. Three days before he left for his first training camp as a starter, Kolb began his day at 5 a.m. on a private lake off a road that doesn't register on GPS. Kolb doesn't fish for leisure. He finished 17th out of 288 in a tournament earlier this summer. "You would not believe how competitive this sport is," Kolb says. "At a little local tournament just a few weeks ago, I saw two guys almost kill themselves racing to get to a good spot. That's why I like it. Right now it's just for fun and a way to take my mind off football for a few hours. But if I did this full time—that would be interesting."
This particular morning Kolb has no competition as he reels in and releases 15 decent-sized largemouth bass in 2½ hours. But as the temperature climbs into the mid-90s, he starts getting antsy. It's becoming too hot for the fish to strike, and he's worried that his workout partners at nearby Glen Rose High won't stick around once it gets over 100.
That's another thing Kolb has in common with Favre. Between OTAs and camp he keeps in shape by throwing to local high schoolers. Kolb's routine also includes weight work, parachute-resistance training and hurdles. He's been spending summers practicing under the Texas sun since he picked up the game. "The heat at training camp bothers some guys," Kolb said. "I don't even notice it."
His high school receivers don't feel the same way. He suspected they might not show up because their coaches were in San Antonio for a convention, and like anyone who didn't have to be on a practice field, they were either in an air-conditioned room or off on a lake.
Problem is, someone locked up the net Kolb throws into when no one is around. So he tells a reporter to suit up and goes through a choreographed workout of about 200 throws. For a quarterback known for his accuracy underneath, it's actually the long and intermediate passes that come easier. One throw he struggles with this day is moving up in an imaginary collapsing pocket and finding a safety valve close to the line. Kolb keeps repeating—drop, scramble, toss—and he just can't get it right. He explains that each receiver wants the ball in a precise spot. "We have a lot of athletes [on the Eagles]," Kolb says. "Get it to your playmakers. Understand who's around you. My job is to deliver the ball to them on time and give them the best opportunity to make plays."
For years Philly fans questioned McNabb's ability to master the short-passing game in Reid's offense. While few QBs could match his long ball, he was inconsistent on touch passes. In Kolb's two starts filling in for an injured McNabb last season—a Week 2 loss to New Orleans and an easy Week 3 win over Kansas City—he completed 64.7% of his passes and became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for more than 300 yards in each of his first two starts.
It was tough to go back to the bench after those games, Kolb says, but he kept an eye on the bigger picture: "I knew my position. I knew Donovan was the starter. And I also felt that I had a pretty good shot at being the starter this year."
Now, after his first full day of practice as a starter, Kolb is upbeat—tired but upbeat. "Man, that felt good," Kolb says. "Did you see how fired up everyone is?"
More than a decade with McNabb gave the Eagles stability and five trips to the NFC Championship Game. But the team had become stale. This year's club is filled with young faces and a new energy—excitement mixed with a touch of nerves. After the reporters and the autograph seekers have gone, Kolb is hesitant to trail his teammates into the locker room. He seems happier on the practice field, just as he is on a lake fishing or in the woods hunting. Anything to keep busy. Thinking too much is not his style. "Sitting around and obsessing isn't going to do me or the team any good," he says.
Kolb knows everyone is watching to see if the Eagles made a mistake moving on from McNabb. He is confident they did not. The only thing he wishes is that he didn't have to wait until Sept. 12 against the Packers at Lincoln Financial Field to start proving it. Not everyone in Philly is sure they're ready for the post-McNabb era. For Kevin Kolb, it can't get here soon enough.
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"Kevin is a cool cucumber," says Andy Reid. "He doesn't get too high or too low."
Thinking too much is not Kolb's style: "Obsessing isn't going to do any good."
Photograph by JOHN BIEVER
SHARPSHOOTER Kolb connected on 64.7% of his passes in his two starts in 2009, and he has built on that promise in off-season drills and August games.
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HOWARD SMITH/US PRESSWIRE (KOLB AND VICK)
LIKE MIKE Kolb says he's comfortable having Michael Vick (7) take the occasional snap: "As long as we move the ball downfield, I don't care how."
PLAYMAKER Touch passes in a West Coast--style attack are Kolb's forte, but he's shown arm strength and mobility as well.