Philadelphia's Kevin Kolb has followed a path strikingly similar to that of Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers to arrive at this point, his first start as the newly appointed leader of his team. Drafted by the Eagles in 2007 as the heir apparent to Donovan McNabb, Kolb served a three-year apprenticeship under the perennial Pro Bowler. Then this past offseason, with the Eagles' organization feeling it was time to turn the offense over to Kolb, McNabb was traded away and a new era officially began in Philly.
Rewind two years ago and it was the same storyline in Green Bay with Rodgers and Brett Favre, though the Eagles' reprise was without all the retirement, un-retirement and training-camp-visit drama the Packers endured. But there's no less angst among Philly fans with regard to how the promising but unproven new guy will fare in place of the seemingly ageless, successful veteran who took the Eagles to five NFC Championship games.
So it comes as no surprise that Kolb has been following Rodgers from the time the Eagles drafted him three years ago in the second round, with the 36th overall pick, out of the University of Houston. Kolb admitted as much in a conference call with Wisconsin media on Wednesday, and he couldn't have picked a better road map as a navigational tool for a difficult spot.
Kolb also sought out some advice from Rodgers earlier this summer, and though he says they never connected for an actual phone call but only via text message, he has admired Rodgers from afar.
"He texted me one day and said, 'Man, I'm a fan of yours,'" Kolb said. "But he has no idea how much of a fan of him I am because of what I got to see him go through, the way he handled all the adversity.
"He always brought it back to football and didn't get caught up in it, and the thing I liked the most is he was always confident and trusting in himself. When you're a quarterback in the NFL, the one thing you pick out in all of them is when it was rough, they just trusted what they did, they trusted their own ability, and they pulled out of it. That's one thing I've taken from him."
Rodgers used that very mindset in his first start, the 2008 season-opening victory on Monday Night Football over Minnesota, which got his tenure off on the right foot. That night there was enormous pressure on Rodgers, playing in prime time in front of the home fans barely a month removed from Favre watching him from a Lambeau Field suite in the Family Night Scrimmage.
"I just remember that I continually told myself to play within the system, that was the most important thing, and not try to do too much," Rodgers said. "I think at times there were thoughts of, 'I have to do this, I have to do that.' I just tried to continue to tell myself our system was good enough, the plays were good enough, I didn't have to do anything extra, just go through my progressions, and I think I did that that day."
To the tune of an impressively efficient 18-of-22 for 178 yards with a touchdown, no interceptions, a rushing TD, and the second-highest completion percentage (81.8) in league history by a quarterback making his first start. The performance got the Green Bay fans behind Rodgers right away and allowed everyone, Rodgers included, to breathe a little sigh of relief.
Kolb will be in front of his home crowd as well on Sunday, in a nationally televised 3:15 p.m. (CT) game on FOX, but the biggest difference is this will not be his first pro start. Kolb started two games last September when McNabb was injured, and he played well, completing 55-of-85 passes (64.7 percent) for 718 yards with four TDs and three INTs as the Eagles went 1-1.
He became the first quarterback in NFL history to top 300 yards passing in his first two starts, and all three interceptions came in a loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints despite a 391-yard day.
Those outings served the same purpose for Kolb as Rodgers' appearance in relief of an injured Favre in a critical matchup of NFC leaders in Dallas in November 2007. They not only convinced some fans that the understudy could play, but more importantly, they got the players around the quarterback believing in his abilities before he officially took the reins.
"I think that helps," Philadelphia head coach Andy Reid said. "You're talking about two guys that are following two great players, legends in their own right. It helps the confidence level and tells you, 'Hey, listen, I can do this thing, and let's see what we can do when we have an opportunity to do it for a full season,' and Aaron's done it. Aaron's turned into be one of the best quarterbacks in the National football League now, and Kevin is just starting that process."
The Packers wouldn't mind, of course, if Kolb and the Eagles wait another week before that process take full flight. To that end, Green Bay's defense is hoping it can spoil the coming-out party.
The Packers are just now getting all their first-string defenders together on the field after a run of injuries during training camp. They also played it very basic scheme-wise in the preseason, as most teams do, so as not to unveil any exotic pressure packages they may have in store for Kolb.
"He hasn't been out there that long, … so in that aspect we feel like as a D-line, you really want to get after him," said defensive end Cullen Jenkins, who returned to full duty in practice on Wednesday after rehabbing a calf injury the past couple of weeks. "We feel like we can help out the secondary by getting pressure up front.
"First of all, we have to stop the run. That's always the No. 1 thing. But when it comes to the pass, you don't want to let him have all day to sit back there and get comfortable, because he's got a lot of ability. The games he came in last year, he threw for a lot of yards, and if you just let him sit back there he's a good quarterback, and he'll find open guys. We have to put it on ourselves to make sure we disrupt him a little bit."
The Eagles are certain to feature some new formations and calls in Week 1 as well to give Kolb the best chance for success. That's all part of the early stages of any NFL season – what Packers Head Coach Mike McCarthy refers to as "unscouted looks" – no matter how much experience the quarterbacks have or their storylines going in.
But the background of the signal callers makes this an awfully compelling season opener, not only for the fans of both teams but for football fans as a whole. While Rodgers will be looking to get the Packers' much-hyped season off to a fast start, Kolb will be trying to prove he's, well, maybe the next Aaron Rodgers.
"He is playing fast for a young guy," McCarthy said of Kolb, acknowledging the challenge he and the Eagles' speedy offensive weapons present. "That is something I was impressed with as far as getting through his progressions. It seems like he is on top of what they are asking him to do.
"It is always a little different for the quarterback the first time he has the ball and it is totally his. But I think he is very well prepared for this opportunity."
McCarthy, of all people, would know.