Scouting the Eagles Backup QBs

Eagles fans know the value of a good quarterback. Ron Jaworski led us to a Super Bowl appearance. So did Donovan McNabb. Randall Cunningham couldn't get that done but made some amazing plays in his Eagles career. Unfortunately, Eagles fans also know the value of a good backup signal-caller.

 

The 1991 season would have been a complete disaster if not for Jim McMahon. Ray Rhodes never finished a season here with the starter he began the year with. The funny thing is that the replacement always outplayed the original starter. Rodney Peete led us to the playoffs in 1995. Then Ty Detmer took over for him early in 1996 and played even better. Late in 1997 Bobby Hoying got on the field and played lights out. He fell apart the next year, but for a while in late '97 Hoying looked like the future of the franchise.

We've had good results under Andy Reid. Koy Detmer and A.J. Feeley helped us to win the division title in 2002. Jeff Garcia did the same in 2006. Kevin Kolb won a game last year and played well in both his starts.

We head into 2010 with a somewhat new situation at quarterback. Kolb is going to be the starter. Michael Vick is going to be the primary backup. Rookie Mike Kafka is projected to be the No. 3 quarterback. All three players have new roles this year.

Kolb will be starting for the first time in his career. That always makes you nervous, but he's been developed at a good pace. This is Kevin's fourth season. He's started a couple of games and has thrown 130 passes in his career. Donovan became a starter after waiting half a season and throwing 51 passes. He also didn't have anything close to what Kevin does in terms of weapons. This is a very favorable situation for Kolb. That's great, but there are plenty of unknowns. One key unknown is durability. He's only been sacked three times in his short NFL career. He'll probably go down three times in the first couple of weeks in 2010. Can he take the beating? Can he hold up?

If Kevin does get hurt, Michael Vick will come off the bench to take over. Some people might think that's a questionable statement based on the last month. Everything I'm hearing behind the scenes is that the team fully backs Vick. Andy knew what he was getting into when he signed him and apparently isn't going to give up on Vick unless he directly does something really troubling. Adam Caplan wrote something similar recently. Forget reports by Charles Robinson and the AP. Those guys don't have Eagles contacts. Caplan is a regular guest on Eagles Live on PhiladelphiaEagles.com and attends practices on a regular basis. He knows the Eagles well.

Let's focus on Vick as a football player. He struggled mightily last year for the first two-thirds of the season. Vick came alive in the win at Chicago. He had a 34-yard run up the middle of the field that showed good ability. The old Vick would have gone all the way for a score, but that was the first play where he looked remotely like the elite weapon he used to be. He had rushing touchdowns in consecutive games a few weeks later. He had pass plays of 30+ yards in those games as well. Suddenly we saw the guy who Andy had in mind when he signed Vick.

What should we expect in 2010? I think any notion that Vick will ever get back to his previous form is pie in the sky thinking. Everything I've heard about him from practices and workouts this offseason is positive. He jumped into action last year in mid-August and was completely rusty. This year he's been had a normal offseason cycle. And that has helped a lot.

Vick will never be a pure pocket passer. He has made big strides in that area since joining the Eagles. In Atlanta he didn't take film study and game preparation very seriously. Vick did his own thing on the field and was so naturally gifted that he got away with it. He seems to realize that just isn't possible anymore. He now has to pay attention in meetings and work hard off the field to be ready on Sundays. How will this translate on the field? None of us really knows. Making the transition from athletic quarterback to more of a traditional passer isn't easy. Vick can spend all week doing his prep work, but how will he react in a game? The old instincts will tell him to run. We need him to remain in the pocket and run the offense. We're better off with the ball in the hands of DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Brent Celek, and LeSean McCoy than Vick trying to make things happen.

 

Judging Vick as a passer has always been complicated. Too many people mistook his desire to run for a lack of ability. Vick has a very good arm, for both distance and velocity. He can throw the ball a mile down the field or fire a bullet out to the sideline. He can be very accurate. The problem he had previously was sloppy mechanics. When Vick plants his feet and throws from a balanced position he can absolutely put the ball on the money. When he drifts in the pocket and throws sidearm across his body...that's when his passes look terrible.

 

Trust the play. Trust your eyes. Trust your mechanics. Trust your teammates. Execute. If Vick has truly changed and now takes an approach like that, he's got a chance to be effective in our system. If he goes back to freelancing and trying to make plays, we're in trouble should we need him to start some games. Vick is good enough to get by for part of a game with being sloppy. He won't lead us to wins as a starter unless he stays within the system.

 

I think one reason Andy is keeping Vick around is to use him in the Wildcat once again. I have mixed feelings on this, but in the end it doesn't matter. Reid will do what he wants. He sees Vick as being someone who can give the offense a spark from time to time. Last year I didn't think the shuffling of McNabb and Vick was worth what we got from it. The plays late in the season were nice, but I just don't like shuffling quarterbacks. I hope that Reid and Vick are better with the Wildcat this year. Last year was a learning experience for the coaches and players. They did get better as the season went along. That does offer some hope that the 2010 Wildcat will be smoother and more effective.

 

I don't know that Vick is ever going to get a starting job in the NFL again. There is a lot of pressure on him this year to show that he can handle being a role player and a backup.  People gave him a pass for 2009 because he was so rusty.  That won't be the case this year.  Vick either plays well or doesn't.  He controls what football people think of him going forward.

 

Rookie Mike Kafka is the man behind Vick. I doubt Kafka will see time in 2010 unless disaster strikes. Should Kolb get hurt we're likely to sign a veteran quarterback to the roster, even for just a game or two. Kafka is a developmental prospect.

 

I liked Kafka when studying him as a draft prospect. He's a "gamer" -- tough, very competitive and a natural leader. I did have some concerns. He spent 5 years at Northwestern, but was only a full-time starter for one season. You prefer quarterbacks to have more experience than that. Kafka played in the spread offense which means he has to learn how to play under center and in a pro style offense. The spread features a short passing attack that has plays designed for receivers to come wide open a lot. That takes the pressure of the quarterback and leads to a lot of easy throws. The quarterback doesn't have to make traditional reads and doesn't have to fire the ball into a tight window.

 

Kafka played at the East-West Shrine Game following the season and that gave him a chance to play in a pro system. Here is a short blurb I wrote on him following the game:

 

QB Mike Kafka did help himself. He led the game-winning drive. He made some pro throws. His passes lack the kind of velocity you ideally want, but he was accurate. He did throw at least one downfield ball. You could also see his athletic ability on the play that set up the TD. Kafka responded well to the pressure of the final drive. He didn't panic at all and did a good job of running the offense.

 

That really is a good summary of Kafka. He's got a lot of good qualities. You just wish he had a stronger arm and was a bit more experienced. He might have been a second-round pick if that were the case. Instead he fell to the fourth round. A note about his arm: Kafka threw the ball well at his pro day. His delivery was better, and his balls had good zip. I don't know if he got coached up by someone or the pre-draft workouts helped or what. I'm very curious to see how he throws the ball at Lehigh. If Kafka has improved velocity there as well, we might have gotten a steal. He didn't have a pop gun arm in college, but it wasn't as good as you'd like.

 

Can Kafka start in the NFL? I think he's got that kind of potential. He absolutely has the intangibles. Kafka is a grinder, meaning he'll work his tail off and do whatever is required of him. He knows that he's not some elite talent that can have a passive attitude. I do think Kafka could be an excellent backup. He is a good combination of pocket passer and athlete. You need someone who can step in and run the offense, but you also like to have a guy who can create plays when things aren't working. The backup doesn't get a lot of reps with the starting receivers. That means that there won't always be good chemistry or timing. When the offense bogs down it is nice to have a quarterback who can move around and make things happen.

 

You may wonder what I mean when referring to Kafka as athletic. As a Junior he ran for 217 yards in a win over Minnesota. He's quick and elusive. He's got some strength as a runner. The biggest thing is that he's just got a really good feel for the game. He drove Penn State crazy in 2009. Prior to leaving with an injury, Kafka had run 8 times for 42 yards and was 14-18-128 as a passer. Northwestern had the lead in the game when he went down.

 

For comparison's sake, you could think of Kafka as a better version of A.J. Feeley. Kafka doesn't have as good an arm, but is more athletic. Feeley was a functional starter on a talented team (2002), but struggled big time when starting on a bad team (Miami). We normally have a strong nucleus. That should ease the pressure on Kafka and put him in a good situation. We'll see if he can develop into a starter, but I do feel confident he can become an excellent backup. Kafka has the right attitude. He knows his place on the team. He'd love to play, but understands he has a lot of work to do before he's NFL-ready.

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