The Biggest Game of Kevin Kolb’s Life

His opponent this Sunday won't really be the Jaguars, but the new and improved Michael Vick

“But you will come to a place where the only thing you feel are loaded guns in your face, and you’ll have to deal with pressure.”
— Billy Joel

When the University of Houston tangled with Southern Mississippi for the 2006 Conference USA championship and a trip to the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, it was big news down in south Texas. The Cougars hadn’t done all that much up to that point, losing their previous six bowl appearances and suffering through a prolonged period of disgrace following a spectacular collection of violations that led to a five-year probation sentence.

But Kevin Kolb changed that against the Golden Eagles, leading UH to a 34-20 victory and the conference crown. It was a great win for the senior and perhaps the kind of clutch performance that led Andy Reid and the Eagles to draft him the following spring. [SIGNUP]

Sunday in Jacksonville — provided he makes it that far — Kolb will face a far bigger challenge than knocking off USM. Back in the summer, fans looked at the matchup with the shaky Jaguars as a mere appetizer before the Blood Bowl against Donovan McNabb and the Redskins. Now, it may well define the rest of the Eagles season. After Michael Vick’s performance in Sunday’s 35-32 win over Detroit, Kolb faces tremendous pressure to perform next week. He cannot stagger. A slow start will not be tolerated. Grace period? Forget about it. If Kolb does not play like a confident, adept QB, and worse, if Vick has to come to his rescue, he will leave Reid no choice but to anoint Vick his starter for the game against Washington and beyond.

Last week in this very space, I wrote that the Eagles must stay with Kolb, despite his concussion and the likelihood he would miss the game with the Lions. My reasoning was that a team can’t spend an entire off-season heralding a player as its next QB, to the point where you dispatch a player whose career will require some serious consideration by Hall of Fame voters, and then bench him after 30 ineffective minutes and an injury. You can, however, relegate that man to backup status should his reserve prove himself capable of winning football games and said quarterback’s return from sick bay is less than inspiring.

That’s where the pressure comes in for Kolb Sunday. Even though the NFC East’s collective break from the gate has been underwhelming, and the rest of the conference looks shaky — except for the (gasp!) Bears —falling to 1-2 in the early part of a schedule that will only get tougher is dangerous business. The Eagles must beat the Jags, and Kolb must play well. If he doesn’t, Kolb will force Reid to turn to Vick, and this time it won’t be on an interim basis. The Eagles could talk about “growing pains” and “grace periods” during May and June, but when the season starts in earnest, it’s about winning now.

That may make some people laugh, since the Eagles have always been unwilling to sell out for a Super Bowl championship, to the point of staying millions under the salary cap instead of grabbing a free agent or two who could provide the final push over the top. But there is a big difference between going 11-5 and playing in two playoff games and finishing 7-9 and angering the fan base. Even though there are people out there rooting against the Eagles because of Vick’s past, there will be even more people furious with the team if it sticks with an ineffective Kolb, now that Vick has proven himself a worthy starter.

What’s so mystifying about this situation is that the one thing that seemed so disconcerting about Kolb’s abbreviated debut as full-time starter was a trait we were told he had in abundance. Against the Packers, he looked tentative and afraid to lead. That was something the team didn’t expect. After all, this is the guy who kills angry 900-pound hogs with a butter knife and his wits. The Texan who withstood his father’s intense criticism to become a tough hombre. When the lights came on against Green Bay, he looked like an understudy thrown on stage opening night with the New York Times’ theater critic ready to pounce. Before Kolb can do anything against the Jaguars, he had better eliminate the butterflies, or he’ll surf a cascade of flop sweat back to the bench.

In a perfect world, Kolb gets the job done Sunday, and the Eagles dump Jacksonville. He then works through the season successfully, making the most of his talents and proving Reid right for making him his starter. But things don’t always go so perfectly in the NFL, and Vick will be available should Kolb abandon the script.

It may be unfair to put this much pressure on the third game of the season, but this isn’t Conference USA. Kolb may have beaten Southern Mississippi back in ’06, but he’s up against a much more formidable opponent this time.

A hungry, rejuvenated Michael Vick.

• So Jayson Werth chose the Prince of Darkness as his agent, did he? Maybe he can sign with a franchise where fans don’t leave early when the home team is down. Better yet, he can join Tampa Bay, where the fans don’t come out at all. Lay off the patrons, Jayson. Few teams have it so good.
• Go ahead and dream, Owls fans. A 3-0 start and some nice revenge over Connecticut are great reasons for optimism. A pending trip to Happy Valley isn’t. But this Temple team is well equipped to mount a legitimate challenge. Then again, the Nittany Lions aren’t UConn.
• Let’s hope the Phillies don’t go overboard “honoring” retiring Braves manager Bobby Cox this week. Fifteen years ago he was arrested for hitting his wife. The grouch has also been thrown out of more games than anybody else. Send him out with a broom, not a tribute.