Only once in his career has Michael Vick started all 16 games (2006). He generally doesn't get seriously hurt, but will miss a game or two here and there. This happened in both 2010 and 2011 as the Eagles starter. With that in mind, the Eagles must go into the 2012 season believing that there is a good chance the backup quarterback will play.
Is Mike Kafka ready?
This might be the most important question facing the Eagles. The hope is that Vick will stay healthy and won't need his backup, but you cannot count on that happening. The backup must be ready to play and ready to start a couple of games.
Andy Reid has had good success with his backup quarterbacks over the years. Koy Detmer won games. So did A.J. Feeley (even once out-dueling Vick). The Mike McMahon project didn't work as hoped, but there were a couple of moments when it almost looked like it might. Jeff Garcia was terrific in 2006. Kevin Kolb had some good games. And we can't forget that Vick began as a backup and played his way into the starting role as an Eagle.
It is easy to look back at Kafka's two games from 2011 and question if he's got what it takes. He played well against Atlanta, although most of his throws were very short. He still got the team in position to score. It was a drop by Jeremy Maclin that killed that drive. The next week Kafka looked bad against the Giants. You have to remember the situations. The coaches were very conservative with Kafka in the Falcons game. Afterward, they regretted being so safe. The next week the coaches went too far the other way. They had Kafka go deep on his first attempt. He forced the ball into coverage and it was picked. On a later drive he followed up a good completion by once again forcing the ball downfield and having it picked off. The coaches should have stuck with small ball, especially considering Kafka was facing the Giants.
Can Kafka improve from that guy to a starting caliber quarterback?
Kevin Kolb got on the field against the Ravens in 2008 and didn't exactly set the world on fire. Many Eagles fans thought he was done after that game. He just didn't look like an NFL quarterback to some people. He started two games early in 2009. Kolb was 1-1 and threw for more than 327 yards in each game. He had four touchdowns and three interceptions. Kolb learned from his rough outing against the Ravens. That game showed him what NFL football was all about and helped him during the next offseason, training camp, and preseason.
Getting a taste of live action can be really helpful. It shows a player just how much they don't know and how much work has to be done. Kafka now knows what it is like to play in real games. He is spending this spring and summer improving on his skills so that he will be ready the next time he gets into a regular season game.
A lot of the people watching the Organized Team Activities have noted that Kafka looks like the most improved Eagle. Many have remarked that he is throwing the ball better and stronger than last year. This may surprise some people. A quarterback can improve his arm strength with work, but he also can improve his mechanics. That can add velocity to passes and distance to downfield throws without making the arm itself any stronger. A lot of power can be generated when quarterback's use their lower body correctly.
Tom Brady throws further and harder now than he did when he was young. A lot of that is due to mechanics. Nolan Ryan threw pitches at 100 miles per hour in baseball and a lot of his power came from his thighs and core area. That lessened the strain on his arm and allowed him to pitch for seemingly ever.
The real test for Kafka will come at Lehigh and in preseason games. He'll be in live action and you will be able to see just how much better he is (or isn't). It is great that he's throwing the ball better now, but that is just one step. He's got a lot more that he must show to make the coaches feel really comfortable with him as the primary backup.
Kafka has done really well in all the classroom sessions. The coaches rave about his knowledge of the playbook and the mental side of things. That will give them confidence in dealing with Kafka as a potential starter. The coaches won't feel they have to be basic with him and the offense.
With improved arm strength and a firm grasp on the mental side of things, I do think the Eagles can win with Kafka, in a limited role. I think the team would have issues if he had to start half the season or some extended amount of time like that. Think back to last year. Vick missed three starts. I think Kafka could handle a situation like that.
The coaches would have to adjust the gameplan to his particular skills. That would mean taking away some of the downfield passes and focusing on more short and intermediate plays. It would also be good to run the ball more and take the pressure off Kafka. This is what the Eagles did with Feeley back in 2002 when he was a young quarterback forced into action.
Kafka would have a much, much better set of weapons to work with. The offense is more explosive now than it was back then. Kafka would be held to a higher standard. The mentality would not be "don't lose the game", as so many backups are told. There would be pressure on Kafka to get the ball to his weapons and help the team score points.
The Eagles have a variety of weapons and the coaches have experience in different styles of offense so they could tailor the attack to fit what Kafka did the best. At Northwestern he was in the spread. The Eagles could put Kafka back in the shotgun and let him throw short, quick passes. Wide receiver screens worked better last year than any time in the past.
The coaches could go conservative and use two-tight end sets more. This would help with protection and give Kafka more time to find a receiver, even though he would have fewer targets to throw to.
The key to all of this is for Kafka to get the ball to the playmakers. That means feeding it to LeSean McCoy as a runner and receiver. It means getting plenty of passes to DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin. It means mixing in Brent Celek a lot. With Vick under center, the playbook is wide open. With Kafka, there are some limitations, but he still should be able to use his weapons and move the ball.
You would not want to run an offense like this for most of the season, but doing it for a couple of games would not be a huge deal. I can't stress enough how important the mental aspect is. Vince Young had the experience and talent to be a very good backup last year, but struggled because he didn't run the offense well. He mis-read plays and didn't anticipate receivers coming open on some passes. Kafka is entering his third season as an Eagle. He should be very comfortable in the offense. He needs good protection and the right plays to be called. The coaches know him and he's knows the offense.
Kafka's future is a bit more cloudy. The Eagles had enough questions about him as a long term answer that they went and drafted Nick Foles in the third round this year. The team thinks Foles can become a future starter. Kafka has that potential, but he's in year three and still is an unknown so that doesn't bode that well for him. Kafka can change all of that by having a good summer and then taking advantage of whatever playing time he does get in 2012. If he plays well, the offense scores points, and the team wins, Kafka will become a hot item to the Eagles and possibly other teams. He is a free agent after the 2013 season so what he does this year will greatly affect his future.