- Jeffri Chadiha, NFL
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BETHLEHEM, Pa. -- Winston Justice felt the intense pain as soon as his right index finger snapped during that January game in Dallas last season.
By the time the Philadelphia Eagles right tackle reached the sidelines, teammates and coaches alike winced at the sight of a digit so mangled it pointed sideways at a 90-degree angle. Backup quarterback Kevin Kolb was just as disgusted by the injury. What he didn't do, however, was allow his shock to prevent him from doing something helpful.
As Justice squirmed while trainers inspected his finger, Kolb calmly strolled over to the bench and started a conversation with the lineman. Kolb talked about the game and what he'd seen from the sidelines. He tried telling a joke or two.
Justice, meanwhile, kept twisting and fidgeting until the medical staff had completed its job.
"I could tell that he was trying to keep my mind off my finger," Justice said during a recent interview. "And I really couldn't remember much of what he was saying. But it said a lot that he would do something like that in the middle of a noisy, hostile stadium where we were losing. It showed how much he cares about his teammates."
The people who have witnessed Kolb's growth over the past three years wouldn't be surprised by such a story. Although he's beginning his first season as the Eagles' starting quarterback -- after the team traded 12-year veteran Donovan McNabb to Washington in April -- Kolb has been preparing for the chance to lead an NFL team since long before Philadelphia made him a second-round pick in the 2007 draft.
Most of his confidence comes from his obvious physical skills and his trademark determination. The rest is the result of a quality Justice witnessed on that day back in Dallas: Kolb's innate understanding of how to keep teammates focused under difficult circumstances.
Fewer pedestals in Philadelphia
Kolb has had the look of a leader from the moment he joined the Eagles. "There's just an air about the guy," Justice said.
Now Kolb is hoping to prove he can succeed a six-time Pro Bowler who led Philadelphia to eight postseason appearances, five NFC Championship Games and one Super Bowl.
Kolb's approach to the position? Keep things simple.
"My goal out there is to take the easy stuff that defenses give me," Kolb said. "I'll get the ball to our guys in space and let them do their thing. I see myself as the distributor."
Kolb's game is built for just such a mentality. While McNabb's strongest attributes were a rocket arm and nimble feet, Kolb has the look of a prototypical game manager in Philadelphia's version of the West Coast offense.
He relies more on accuracy, consistency, quick decision-making, and a belief in spreading the football around to targets like DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and tight end Brent Celek. In both of Kolb's two starts last season, seven receivers caught at least one pass from him.
The concept of sharing is one Kolb also applies to leadership. Although he naturally carries a bulk of the responsibility because of his position, he also wants his teammates to help fill the void created by the departure of veteran stars like McNabb and running back Brian Westbrook.
In fact, Kolb was delighted during a recent practice when five different offensive players criticized what seemed to be a lethargic effort at various times in the day. It told the quarterback the right kind of chemistry is evolving on one of the youngest teams in the league.
Said Kolb: "We want everybody to feel like they have a voice here. Everybody can speak up because that's how you build a team. If you have three guys standing on a pedestal and everybody else is down below, it's harder to get things done. Because at some point, you're going to have some people feeling like they're not as involved as they need to be."
Be content to be No. 4, not No. 5
The other upside of that attitude is that it makes life easier on Kolb. He understands the inherent challenges of replacing McNabb, and he realizes many young quarterbacks can make the mistake of trying too hard to prove their worth.
Kolb is no stranger to that temptation, as a couple of teammates razzed him during a training camp practice when he forced a pass into tight coverage instead of making an easier throw on what turned out to be an incompletion.
"What are you trying to do?" one player yelled. "Show people why you were a top draft pick?"
Eagles coach Andy Reid has stressed that Kolb has to avoid the desire to be more than what he is, now that he's the starter.
"I want him to be himself," Reid said. "Every quarterback who has played in this system has put his own stamp on it. People said Donovan McNabb couldn't be successful in this offense, but he was and he did it his own way.
"What Kevin has to understand is that he can paint whatever image he wants to the media, but if he shows the guys in the locker room something different, they'll see right through it. That's why I've told him to just go out and be Kevin Kolb. And don't worry about anything else."
Kolb already is familiar with handling heavy expectations.
When he was a ninth-grader living in Stephenville, Texas, Stephenville High football coach Art Briles moved him up to play on his varsity team. After heading to the University of Houston, Briles later turned Kolb into a freshman starter there.
It made sense, Briles (now at Baylor) said: "Even though it's hard for a freshman to earn respect, our guys saw that he could play."
Add in the fact that Kolb has a wife (Whitney) and two daughters well before he celebrates his 26th birthday Tuesday, and you get the picture. Learning on the fly has never been his problem.
Donovan taught me that there will always be peaks and valleys in this game. But no matter what is said, you can't listen to it.
”-- New Eagles starting QB Kevin Kolb, on advice he got from the man he succeeds, Donovan McNabb
Then there are the lessons Kolb learned while sitting behind McNabb.
"The big thing I saw from him was how he handled the highs and lows of the job," Kolb said. "Donovan taught me that there will always be peaks and valleys in this game. But no matter what is said, you can't listen to it.
"In the NFL and especially in this city, people will get down on you. So you can't get too high and you can't get down on yourself."
The way Kolb handled his three years on the bench has left a strong impression with his teammates. Rarely did a day go by when he wasn't throwing extra passes after practice or supporting McNabb any way possible. When teammates came to the sidelines during games, Kolb also was quick to offer advice on adjustments and defensive looks.
He wanted the players to know his head was in the game even when his body wasn't. In turn, they saw a young quarterback with the potential to grow up in a hurry once his time came.
Eagles wide receiver Jason Avant remembered how diligently Kolb prepared for his first career start last season, when an injury to McNabb left Philadelphia vulnerable in a big Week 2 game against New Orleans.
When Avant asked Kolb how he was feeling a few days before the contest, Kolb said, "I can promise you this -- if I don't play well, it won't be because I didn't prepare myself."
Said Avant: "That's the mentality guys respect in a quarterback."
Although Kolb produced huge numbers in that game (31-for-51 passing, 391 yards and two touchdowns), he also threw three interceptions in what turned out to be a 48-22 rout. The next week turned out much better for him.
After throwing for 327 yards and two touchdowns in a 34-14 win over the Kansas City Chiefs, Kolb became the first player in NFL history to have back-to-back 300-yard games in his first two starts. He also showed the kind of progress that delights coaches.
"You could see that he was applying lessons from the past," Eagles offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said.
"In that Kansas City game, he saw a blitz that he had seen in the previous year [Kolb made four appearances as a backup in 2008] and he wound up making a mistake the first time around. This time, he saw the same look and turned it into a 12-yard completion. So you can see that Kevin learns from his mistakes quickly and then moves on."
Added Chiefs safety Jon McGraw: "I was impressed with him, especially because it was his second start. You could see that he made good decisions and that he was very accurate. It can be tough for young quarterbacks to mentally process a lot of stuff when they're thrown into those kinds of situations. He's definitely a guy with a bright future."
Text message from McNabb
Kolb now has to be similarly resilient over an entire season. One thing that will be evident during his tenure is a different style of play within the Eagles' offense. Instead of the big plays that became McNabb's trademark, there will be more short passes of the dink-and-dunk variety. There also will be a different feel in the overall chemistry of the unit.
Since most of the Eagles' offensive players are around Kolb's age, they already have a strong bond off the field with the quarterback. They realize the presence of McNabb and Westbrook made them want to defer to their older teammates.
With Kolb in charge, the communication lines are more open.
"We can all talk to Kevin," Celek said. "If I think I'm open on a play, I can come back to the huddle and say something. When you're friends with a guy, you can talk like that and know things will get resolved quickly."
As much as the Eagles are excited about their talent and their unity, they also know what Kolb understands clearly: He must deliver on all that promise.
That's why he says he won't really have credibility with his teammates until the regular season starts. It's also why he spends as much time off the field embracing his opportunities to relax, like when he slipped away for a round of golf with backup quarterback Michael Vick during a recent break from training camp.
Kolb saw firsthand what McNabb went through in Philadelphia. He realizes his honeymoon period won't last long once problems arise.
In fact, McNabb sent Kolb a text message before training camp began, offering his former understudy good luck and encouraging him to stay patient.
The second part of that message might be the best advice Kolb gets as the glare of the spotlight increases.
"To be honest, I've been surprised by how I've been treated because it's not like people bother me in restaurants," Kolb said. "But I also know what these fans expect from the quarterback on this team. I realize I have to get things done."
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
QB Kevin Kolb has had the look of a leader from the moment he joined the Philadelphia Eagles, and now after three years he's ready to prove it, Jeffri Chadiha writes.