Sam Donnellon: McNabb's legacy can't be measured until Kolb era takes shape

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Donovan McNabb could be traded before next month's NFL draft. (Yong Kim / Staff Photographer)

ABSENCE MAKES THE heart grow fonder in sports, only if what comes next is awful or even mundane. For all the interest and infatuation bestowed upon Eagles backup quarterback Kevin Kolb, we know so little about him.

Particularly, we know so little about the same traits that allowed Donovan McNabb to survive and sometimes thrive in this town for 11 years. How smart is Kolb? How evasive? Dan Marino was slow of foot but was able to step out of trouble and avoid sacks. Is Kolb like that, or is he a target?

Will he rattle easily? Is he as durable? How will he handle criticism? Manage the clock?

Will he be the next Aaron Rodgers or the next Billy Volek - Tennessee's short-term successor to Steve McNair?

So much of McNabb's legacy here will be determined in the months and seasons that follow his departure. Kolb will get a honeymoon, for sure, but it will be short. For all the angst expressed here and in other places, the Eagles did win 11 games last season with McNabb, and he threw for more yards than in all but two of his previous seasons. One was in 2004, when the Eagles reached the Super Bowl. The other was 2008, when they reached their fifth NFC Championship Game with McNabb as their quarterback.

These are numbers, not arguments. My eyes see what most of you see, which is a quarterback who has battled through inaccuracy during his prime now struggling mightily with it as he moves past that prime.

It has been pointed out repeatedly that only once, when Terrell Owens was rented for a year, did McNabb have the kind of receiver to throw to that many modern Super Bowl winning quarterbacks had. Is Eli Manning a Super Bowl MVP without Plaxico Burress? Steve Young or Joe Montana without Jerry Rice? Does Kurt Warner win without Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce or have his career revived without Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin?

If McNabb leaves, he leaves the best group of hands he ever had as a pro. DeSean Jackson is an emerging star. Jeremy Maclin will only get better. Jason Avant has evolved into that dependable possession pro that every championship team seems to have, and Brent Celek may be the second or third best tight end out there right now.

The theory is that Kolb, with a more accurate arm, will embellish all that. But what if he gets confused by defenses thrown at him, or can't handle the quickness of the game? What if, once teams scout him a little, he turns into Jake Delhomme?

Back to durability. Despite a painful sports hernia, ACL tear and broken ankle, McNabb has been a resilient warrior. Only once in his 11 seasons did McNabb fail to start at least nine games. Seven times he started 14 or more games. Four times he started every game.

Remember that game in Week 11 of the 2002 season, when his ankle snapped in three places on the third play of the game, and he finished the day completing 20 of 25 passes for 255 yards and four touchdowns? He rushed himself back for the playoffs that year, then looked awful in a 20-6 victory over Atlanta and that 27-10 home loss to Tampa Bay in the NFC Championship Game.

We can talk again about whether he barfed in the huddle in the waning minutes of the Super Bowl, but it obscures how statistically spectacular he was in that game: Thirty completions and 357 yards are both in the top five of all-time Super Bowl numbers. Three interceptions are right there, too.

He's almost like an elected candidate. If he was your guy, you defend his mistakes, his humanity, his missteps. If you decided in the voting booth, you probably have been on both sides of this at times, probably, like me, blamed at least part of his troubles on a coach and a system that doesn't utilize him properly.

If he was never your guy, or if your opinion turned on one of those mistakes or missteps, you want him so gone that your mind sometimes seems gone. You are consumed with your dislike, or even hate. You've blogged, e-mailed and Twittered so much of your angst, the skin on your fingers is as raw as your emotion.

Will Kolb be better? So far it has been a mix of highlights and horror, much like it was with the man he seems destined to replace. McNabb's touchdown-to-interception ratio is better than any Hall of Fame quarterback, something I believe he took too much pride in, playing too carefully at times. But that doesn't mean I'm too keen on Kolb already throwing two of the longest interception returns in NFL history.

Right now, it is evidence only that he needs to play more. But if we're still talking about goal-line picks this time next year, we're also probably talking about whether jettisoning McNabb was as great of an idea as most of us think it is right now.

Send e-mail to donnels@phillynews.com.

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