- Elizabeth Merrill
- 0 Shares
PHILADELPHIA -- This cannot be a story about a quarterback controversy. It's too clichéd, too worn-out and, quite frankly, impossible to get. See Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid on a crisp fall afternoon this week, bounding out the door in his trademark shorts, never breaking stride or even making eye contact. He's not going to answer another question about it.
See Michael Vick, thumbing through his cell phone, casually slumped over at his locker, which happens to sit right next to Kevin Kolb's. Last week, during the Eagles' bye, Vick received a series of text messages. They were from Kolb. One was a picture of a couple of dead turkeys that Kolb bagged during his trip back home to Texas; another featured a wild hog who met an ill fate with a bow. Check out your boy getting his hunting in, is all Kolb remembers typing in a testosterone-charged week of camouflage and reflection.
Kolb sent the texts, mind you, just days after Vick reclaimed the starting job, the same one that Kolb was ceremoniously handed last spring.
"We'll be friends for a long time," Kolb said. "It's not a facade. It's the truth."
It's a confusing, weird and apparently harmonious time in Philadelphia, and the two men in the middle of it couldn't be more opposite. One is a left-handed lightning rod of controversy with enough baggage to fill the A terminal at the Philadelphia International Airport; the other is the right-handed son of a football coach-turned-RV-park owner raised in the cowboy capital of the world.
Everything Kolb says is so perfect, so team-first and Kevin last, that it must make Reid occasionally ponder cracking a smile underneath his thick mustache.
Everything Vick does is so unpredictable. On Sept. 12, Kolb was the Eagles' anointed franchise quarterback, the replacement to Donovan McNabb, when he was sacked and knocked out of the game on the 15th offensive play in the season opener against Green Bay. Vick entered the game, and everything changed.
Nobody could've predicted this, that Vick, 18 months removed from being incarcerated on dogfighting charges, would be so good that he'd be the Eagles' starting quarterback at the midway point of the 2010 season. Not Reid, a meticulous evaluator who keeps near his desk a quote from Charles Lindbergh about following a plan. Not even Vick, who once worried that none of the 32 teams in the league would give him another chance.
"The way you have to approach is that God's got a plan," Kolb said. "There's a reason that [sack] happened. I mean, nobody wishes I would've gotten the ball out a little quicker than me on that particular play. But God has a plan.
"Mike, he's been through a lot. This is very minor compared to what he's been through, you know? So he's the best one to learn from when it comes to rolling with the punches."
'I was crushed by it'
He never allowed himself to go there. At night, when the lights went out at the United States Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan., Vick closed his eyes and dreamed of opened doors, not flying footballs.
Of course he'd watch the games on Sundays. Maybe sometimes he pictured himself back in his No. 7 Atlanta Falcons uniform, slipping past the outstretched hands of an outmatched tackle, diving for the end zone.
"But I couldn't really dwell on it because I was incarcerated, you know?" Vick said. "The only thing I wanted was my freedom."
Twenty-one months in prison, two years away from football in the middle of his athletic prime, and Vick, his supporters say, is a changed man. He's appreciative of what he has, and mindful of squandering it all away again. Above his locker hangs a sticker that says, Walk the Talk. On Wednesday afternoon, in the middle of a noisy locker room, he leans in a little and tells a story of his worst day in prison. It was the spring of 2008. His son Mitez flew in from Virginia to visit. The kid was 6 years old, and Vick hadn't seen him for three months.
Vick could see Mitez heading up to the door when the visit, he says, was suddenly canceled.
"I cried," Vick said. "I was crushed by it. Because I could see how happy he was when he was running up to see me. That right there killed me. Killed all my spirit."
Life on the outside churned on. The Steelers won another Super Bowl, Al Davis fired and hired another coach in Oakland and, outside of the walls of Leavenworth, very few people believed Vick would ever be back in the NFL. And Vick struggled to believe it himself.
He was released in May 2009, spent two more months on house arrest, and was shopped around that summer. In the list of winnowing teams that hadn't already taken a public pass, Philadelphia was considered one of the teams least likely to take a chance on Vick.
For one, Reid isn't exactly known to make impulsive decisions. He'd been in lockstep with one quarterback for 11 years, through playoff losses and sports-radio blastings and the occasional late-game gaffe. Reid is also anti-drama, as evidenced by the quick dispatching of Terrell Owens after '05.
The numbers didn't make sense, either.
"When they made the decision to sign him, I went on the record saying, 'I don't get it,'" said Ray Didinger, a former NFL Films producer who's covered the Eagles for more than four decades. "You're bringing this guy in, he hasn't played in two years, and at the time I didn't think his style of play was a fit for the West Coast offense, and certainly I didn't think he fit as a viable backup quarterback to McNabb.
"He certainly was not going to compete with McNabb for the starting job, and you've already drafted and spent three years grooming Kevin Kolb to be the next quarterback. So what do you need Michael Vick for?"
But people close to Reid say the thought process went much deeper than that. In 2007, Reid's private life spilled all over the newspapers. Reid saw his sons Britt and Garrett, in trouble for drugs, serving time for their mistakes, hoping for second chances. If Garrett and Britt deserved another chance, then didn't Vick, too?
"Anyone who knows Coach Reid knows he's a man who's very complex," said the Rev. Herbert Lusk, the Eagles' team chaplain. "He understands how a good person could make a mistake. And I'm sure Coach Reid in some ways treated Vick as someone who made a mistake and knew he needed redemption. That same thing happened in his own family."
'Kevin is extremely competitive'
It happened after the sun went down on Easter, a seismic shift that rocked the southeast side of Pennsylvania. McNabb was traded to the Washington Redskins; the keys were handed to Kolb. By the end of April, the Eagles backed up their confidence in the 26-year-old by giving him $12 million in guaranteed money and locking him away through the 2011 season.
There was little doubt that Kolb was the man. He'd won the locker room, and thrown for 300 yards in back-to-back games in 2009 when McNabb was hurt.
More important, Kolb appeared to have the mental makeup to handle the most scrutinized job in one of the country's most passionate and demanding sports cities. It's the town that famously booed McNabb during the 1999 draft, yet spent the past week still clinging to him in a way, hitting the airwaves to dissect his benching last Sunday in Washington. In Philly, former Eagles quarterback Bobby Hoying says, the highs are intoxicating and the lows are humbling. Hoying used to field nasty calls at his house after a loss from fans telling him to play better. But looking back, Hoying says, he fed off their passion. "I loved playing in Philly," he said.
But back to Kolb. When his name was called in 2007, and he was shipped to that hub of expectations, the Texan didn't blink.
"We've always kind of viewed that as a positive, being in a passionate city like Philadelphia," said Baylor coach Art Briles, who coached Kolb at Houston. "There's always going to be those times when it may feel like it's not going the way you want it to go, but then you really have a surge that maybe some other teams don't.
"Kevin is extremely competitive, but he doesn't let it control his demeanor."
Kolb developed his easy-going nature growing up in Stephenville, a north-central Texas town of about 15,000 that dubs itself the world's cowboy capital. Bull riding, hunting and dairy farming are the mainstays in Stephenville. So is football.
"It's just like the 'Friday Night Lights' movie," said Kendal Briles, a former teammate at Houston and one of Kolb's best friends. "It's all about high school football."
Kolb earned the starting job at Houston the day before the season opener in 2003, as a true freshman. He started for four straight years, rolled up 12,964 passing yards, then proceeded to sit on the bench for three years in Philly behind McNabb.
When he finally ascended to the starting job this season, it was such a big deal in Philadelphia that one of the local papers did a five-part series on his life in the offseason. And then came the hit, from a charging Clay Matthews. Kolb never saw it coming.
So Vick entered the game with the Eagles down 20-3, a quarterback relegated to Wildcat formations and backup duty. He broke loose from the clutches of Matthews and scrambled 31 yards. He led the Eagles to 17 second-half points and energized an entire stadium.
In that moment, Vick morphed into something that hadn't even been seen in his good days in Atlanta. He wasn't just an uber-talented athlete, and he wasn't just back. Vick was a man who'd finally put it together, who'd finally learned how to be a quarterback.
"I can't really pinpoint a moment," Eagles tackle Winston Justice said. "But his attitude is like, 'I'm about to score a touchdown. You guys can help if you want to.'"
Vick the starter, again
No members of the Eagles' front office were made available for this story. Some speculate that Reid & Co. are suffering from quarterback fatigue and all the questions that have emerged over the past seven weeks. One minute, Reid reiterated that Kolb was his starter. Twenty-four hours later, he changed his mind and chose Vick.
When Vick injured his ribs last month, it was speculated that Kolb might win the job back again. But Vick will start this weekend against the Colts, and the Eagles, who have gone through two injuries and four quarterback changes, are contenders in the NFC with a 4-3 record. Did Reid survey the landscape of the conference and decide to give the Eagles their best chance to win with a veteran? Did he get sentimental over Vick, who says that he's grown surprisingly close to Reid?
One of Reid's oldest coaching buddies, the Vikings' Brad Childress, says it's simple.
"As a head coach, everybody is charged with who gives you the best chance to win," Childress said. "That's always the bottom line."
But things have changed in Philadelphia. The Eagles' locker room has changed. The handful of stars who were faces of the franchise are gone, giving way to one of the youngest teams in the league. Some have called this Phase II of the Andy Reid era, a team struggling with its identity.
This generation sees a different Vick, a mythical figure of sorts. As kids, they picked Vick's team -- always -- in video games, then raced home on Sunday nights to see what he did.
"There was definitely like a Michael Vick aura," rookie tight end Clay Harbor said. "He was a lot of peoples' favorite when I was growing up. He could run fast, he could throw far. It seemed like everyone pulled for him."
No second chances
Not everyone is pulling for Vick in Philadelphia. Andee Knopf, a retired Philly cop, used to go to watch the Eagles at Franklin Field. She loved her team since shortly after birth, loved to wear the colors and watch the games on Sunday. Now she refuses Eagles tickets, even when they're free, and won't turn on the TV when Vick's team plays.
She gave up smoking last year around the same time she gave up on the Eagles. Quitting cigarettes, Knopf says, was easier than quitting on football.
"The sound of their name right now makes me angry," she said. "I'm angry at Andy Reid, I'm angry at [owner] Jeff Lurie. Hanging pit bulls by telephone poles and electrical wires that kind of behavior doesn't appear in someone who isn't broken, who's normal. That doesn't correct itself in prison.
"I don't believe everyone deserves second chances. To make him the face of this franchise is embarrassing."
But the outrage of last year's signing has generally subsided, even after a highly publicized shooting after Vick's birthday party this past summer. (Authorities have said Vick was not the shooter.) And Didinger says that now, the city appears to be pulling for Vick.
Ashley Fox, a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer, says Vick has shown Philadelphia a softer, more sympathetic side.
"I think when he first got out of prison, he was not comfortable articulating his remorse," Fox said. "But I think he's really sorry for what he did, for what happened to him. I mean, he lost everything and spent a year and a half in prison. How is that not going to change you?"
They'll go fishing
They are actually alike, Kolb says. They are laid-back and tough and have spent a good chunk of their time in Philadelphia waiting.
Nobody knows what is going to happen in three months, when the season is over and one of the quarterbacks likely will be gone. A few months ago, it was assumed it would be Vick, whose contract is up after the season. Now everything has changed.
Vick's agent, Joel Segal, declined to comment on his client's future. Vick doesn't want to think about it right now, either.
"A year ago, I would've never imagined myself in this position," he said.
Kolb wouldn't have, either. He has promised Vick that he will take him fishing after the season, just two guys on a boat reflecting on a season like no other in Philadelphia.
"I think that one thing you realize, if you don't get along with your teammates, boy, it sure makes for a long season," Kolb said. "That's one thing about this group. Everybody in this locker room gets along right now. Not just me and Mike. Everybody. It helps out through the tough times, and you enjoy the good ones a little more, too.
"We have a lot more in common than what people think."
Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.
The Philadelphia Eagles quarterbacks say the back-and-forth of who will start has not caused a rift between them, or among their teammates.