IT WAS IMPORTANT for Kevin Kolb to be the real deal in April, in July and in September. It was important when Donovan McNabb was first traded that the Eagles had a plan in place, had a quarterback for the future, had us all sold that this was Kevin Kolb's time.

Now, after the season Michael Vick had and the season Donovan McNabb did not have, that is no longer as important. So can we stop ascribing attributes to him that he may not possess, attributes that have been, at best, hit or miss?

For as many times as Kolb has looked like he did against Atlanta or San Francisco, there have been efforts such as yesterday that suggest he is much more ordinary than was hoped. The preseason was uneven. The start of the opener against Green Bay, before he bounced his head and wound up at the crux of a debate on concussion treatment, was not awe-inspiring.

Yes, yes, I know. He didn't have much to work with in yesterday's 14-13 loss to Dallas in the season finale. Clay Harbor was his not-so-surehanded tight end, Chad Hall was the store-brand version of DeSean Jackson. Jerome Harrison ran the ball. A second-string offensive line elicited greater appreciation of the first-stringers.

Yes, yes, Kolb had to move his feet in the pocket more than he liked. And, yes, he was nearly decapitated a couple of times when the rookie Harbor mulliganed a few blocks on DeMarcus Ware. But there were plenty of misfires that had nothing to do with missed assignments, nothing to do with pressure. Once Kolb bounced a pass off a defensive lineman's helmet. His next pass was deflected at the line as well. The Eagles ran 69 offensive plays yesterday, and scored 13 points.

"To be total honest with you, I was seeing everything clear," Kolb said after he completed 18 of 36 passes for 162 yards and three interceptions. "It's your body catching back up to the speed of the game."

He finished with a passer rating of 37.0. Kolb fumbled a ball into Ware's hands for Dallas' first touchdown, threw an interception inside of the red zone that aborted a promising third-quarter drive. In all, he threw three interceptions, but the other two were prayers lofted at the end of each half. No, Kolb's greater crimes were just bad reads and bad throws. The offshoot, you hope, of 10 weeks of inactivity.

"We call it second vision," he said, trying to define rust. "The stuff that you feel around you, your peripheral vision when you're pushing, when you're going to throw and a guy squeezes in and he's wide open . . . "

It's great stuff, what he says. After an era in which the coach said nothing afterward and the starting quarterback followed with a bunch of gibberish, it has been, and remains, a reason to root for Kolb. He is a coach's son and he speaks like a coach's son. But every coach's son does not make a great NFL quarterback.

Hall had to wait on a 48-yard pass early in the fourth quarter, a pass we are so used to seeing Vick make with the receiver in full stride, or at least miss by overthrowing. And, yeah, Harbor dropped at least three balls, including a long one that may have led to a touchdown. That ball made him wait, too, and allowed the defender to close in even.

"I took my eye off the big, long ball," Harbor said. "Nobody's around. You think too much and then you start looking before you catch the ball, looking to run.''

He was asked if Kolb's throws are different than Vick's.

"Oh yeah," he said. "You can't use that as an excuse this far in, though. We've had time with both guys throwing us balls as the No. 1."

This is not a rip job on Kolb. It really isn't. Maybe if he stayed healthy he would have duplicated his efforts against San Francisco, or his player-of-the-week performance in October against the NFC's top-seeded team, Atlanta. You just don't know. He had that klunker against Washington amid all that, too. He looked pretty ordinary in those preseason games.

And he looked pretty ordinary yesterday, too.

No rip there. That's being kind.

The bottom line, though, is you don't know. And if you don't, chances are the rest of the NFL is with you. There has been a lot of talk over the last few weeks about whether Kolb is more valuable to the Eagles as offseason trade bait or Vick's backup. He may have determined that yesterday.

"I want to be a starter, obviously," Kolb said. "I feel like I can be."

What kind of a starter? Ordinary? Great?

The answer isn't any clearer, really, than it was 16 games ago. *

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