Saturday, April 28, 2007

Giving Kevin Kolb the Benefit of the Doubt

By Michael Johns

I wouldn't exactly call Jeffrey Lurie, the owner of my beloved Philadelphia Eagles, a good friend, or even a friend at all really. But we share enough in common: the same birthday (September 8th) and a passionate love for the Eagles, which in my case goes back to the age of six or seven, with fond memories of Ron Jaworski and Bill Bergey. Mr. Lurie's history is actually not as deeply rooted in the green and white: he comes from Boston, then headed to Hollywood to run some movie production company, neither of which you would find too commonly among the old 700-level Veterans Stadium fans who have deep emotional investments in this team. But suffice it to say that he's now the CEO of the company I have long admired the most--and, on that basis alone, Mr. Lurie has earned a place in my world.

But there's at least a little more to my history with Mr. Lurie and maybe, today being NFL Draft day, some relevant lesson that can be drawn from it as it relates to today's shocking first round selection by the Eagles. In that selection, the Eagles opted to trade down with the Dallas Cowboys in the first round and then use their first overall selection to draft University of Houston quarterback Kevin Kolb. Kevin Kolb? Yes, Kevin Kolb.

Back in the late 1990s, as a senior associate in one of Philadelphia's politically-wired center city consulting firms, I also counted the Eagles among one of the Philadelphia-based clients that I represented. While the vast majority of my time was spent in our health care practice focused on assisting hospitals, nursing homes and the like, from time to time some of my colleagues at the firm--looking for some lobbying or strategic input but more likely just knowing of my passionate, lifelong love for the Birds--would look for my assistance in one way or another on the Eagles account. The essence of the mission was simple enough: to obtain state funding from Harrisburg for a new football-only stadium to replace Veterans Stadium, the historic South Philly stadium and former home to the Eagles and Phillies. It's a stadium of such fond multi-decade memories (to put it in historical perspective, I once saw Lou Brock steal a base there) that I sort of regret never purchasing one of its stadium seats, which I think they ended up marketing and selling for about $200 a piece before the stadium was ultimately subjected to a somewhat saddening 15-second, "shock and awe" city-orchestrated implosion. And then it was gone. Given that, I always thought a few Veterans Stadium seats would work well in my living room and would reveal all one needs to know about my interior design preferences.

The decimation was understandable. By the late 1990s the Vet's "field" was pretty much green concrete, not keeping up with some of the more plush NFL stadiums arising around the nation and, while many of us hated to see it go, the case for its replacement became glaringly apparent once quality prospective Eagles and Phillies players expressed reluctance about playing in Philly because of the field's quality. Lincoln Financial Field (along with three other large Pennsylvania stadiums) ultimately won the support sought from the state, and the Eagles now have a new and vastly improved home field.

As the campaign to replace the Vet gained momentum in the 1990s, I'd find myself from time to time in our firm's mahogany board room with none other than Mr. Lurie, and it didn't take more than a few meetings before I joined the many Philadelphians who felt compelled to share their "wisdom" on the team's direction. It was March 1999, maybe three weeks or so before the NFL Draft in which the Eagles had the second overall selection (and it was already widely established that Tim Couch would go first). The fall before, I spent quite a few Saturdays watching the poetic running of University of Texas running back Ricky Williams, who Sports Illustrated reasonably labeled the "Texas Tornado" in one cover story. One look at Williams told me everything I needed to know: he was a huge talent, with great stop and go running capabilities and the sort of speed explosion and misdirection running that made him extraordinary. His senior year, as I recall, he rushed for over 200 yards on something like 12 separate occasions. Who was the last to do that? Not surprisingly, Williams was the obvious choice for the 1998 Heisman. Like a lot of Eagles fans, I felt that Ricky Williams would one day belong to the elite group of NFL running backs: Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton, Barry Sanders...Ricky Williams. Obvious enough, right?

I felt compelled, as a passionate Eagles fan with this special access, to share my wisdom with my new friend, Mr. Lurie. Our meeting broke, the small talk commenced, and I soon found myself walking down the firm's hall with the owner of the Philadelphia Eagles. I shared my pearl of wisdom: "Mr. Lurie, I watched a lot of Ricky Williams down at Texas. I sure hope the Eagles can pick this guy up." "You think so?" he replied, with the smirk of a man who had heard utterly too many suggestions from all-knowing Eagles fans and may well already have discounted Williams for reasons unknown to the pedestrian Eagles fan.

NFL Draft day came and many Eagles fans, urged on by Philly sports radio station WIP, famously made the journey to New York City's Madison Square Garden to root for a Ricky Williams selection. The opportunity to seize the next Walter Payton had arrived. "With the second selection in the 1999 NFL Draft," NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said that day, "the Philadelphia Eagles select...Donovan McNabb from Syracuse." Eagles brethren filled the Garden with boos as McNabb grabbed his Eagles jersey and posed with Tagliabue. The boos continued. Then New Orleans Saints coach Mike Ditka saw his unique opportunity, quickly traded up, and Ricky Williams was off to New Orleans and Eagles fans, I suppose, spent a bus ride back to Philly denouncing the selection of this new quarterback from Syracuse.

Fast forward a few years. McNabb has led the Eagles to the playoffs just about every year and to one Super Bowl. Call him the best quarterback in football and some people might pause and mention Peyton Manning, the Super Bowl-proven Tom Brady, or the emerging and explosive Michael Vick, but the thesis of McNabb as "best" would not be too broadly challenged. McNabb is plain good and maybe great. He has played with broken bones. I became a believer when, this past fall, he refused to leave a game in 110-degree Tampa Bay heat, ultimately vomiting on the grass of Raymond James Stadium, then calmly resuming an Eagles drive to a fourth quarter score.

As for Ricky Williams, as I recall, the Saints somewhat outrageously ended up negotiating his contract with Williams' new agent, Master P of hip hop fame, and Williams then went on to test positive for marijuana multiple times, ultimately announcing an early retirement presumably because he was about to face his third positive test for the drug, which he said he used instead of taking anti-depressants to treat his social anxiety disorder (he would conduct media interviews with his helmet on). Time passed, and the 1999 draft faded from memory. Williams disappeared from the game and the memories of most Eagles fans. McNabb soared to legendary status.

Which brings me to Kevin Kolb, the University of Houston quarterback taken this afternoon with the Eagles' first 2007 NFL Draft selection (after the Eagles were apparently convinced they would not obtain the quality safety they originally sought). I did not follow college football quite as closely in the fall of 2006 as I did the 1998 season that I grew to admire the "Texas Tornado." But let me say that I watched enough to know that Kevin Kolb was not a name that rolled off the tongues of many as a likely top 2007 draft selection. Even among quarterbacks, he was considered a more likely third round selection, and he did not appear on any Eagles short list that I remember seeing.

But at least with the Eagles, I've come to learn and remember the lesson of Ricky Williams. Eagles coach Andy Reid and his quality group of coaches and scouts, likely now realizing that a day will come when McNabb (who will turn 31 this season) no longer takes Eagles' snaps, have thought ahead. As I do most years, I'll make the trip to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania this July for Eagles training camp and look forward to seeing Kolb in a red Eagles quarterback jersey. With the Ricky Williams selection now nearly a decade old, are we too proud in our football wisdom to give Kevin Kolb the benefit of the doubt?

Mr. Lurie, of course, had it right in his selection of Donovan McNabb, who (if his injury recuperation continues on pace) may yet lead the Eagles to a Super Bowl victory and may some day enter Canton as a Pro Football Hall of Fame selection. Conversely, after disappearing for a while following his positive drug findings, Ricky Williams resurfaced recently, playing a season with the Toronto Agronauts in the Canadian Football League and is now purportedly attempting an NFL comeback. I, for one, would love to see him in an NFL uniform this season because his raw talent has yet to be fully witnessed in the NFL, and there is no reason to think it still does not exist. But the Ricky Williams lesson is obvious: The selection of Ricky Williams by the Eagles in 1999 would have ranked among the worst draft selections in Eagles history, with the Eagles passing on a quarterback who has become "the franchise."

One cannot really view the Kevin Kolb selection in April 2007 without that perspective. The McNabb era will one day end. His off-season training and recuperation efforts are legendary, but his cumulative injuries are now sufficiently concerning to ask what the future holds for the Eagles at quarterback.

One hopes that question was answered today in Kevin Kolb, of whom I know next to nothing except that he appears to have had reasonably impressive statistics at the University of Houston, whose games were not once broadcast in Philadelphia as far as I recall. The word "durable" was used today to describe him. Good enough for me. Here's to Kevin Kolb--and hoping his NFL career becomes all that Andy Reid and Jeffrey Lurie obviously saw when Tagliabue let out those now infamous words at the Garden: "Donovan McNabb from Syracuse." This time, I am letting the lesson of Ricky Williams prevail and, unlike some Eagles fans, presuming some not so obvious wisdom in the selection.

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