No More Scrambling

Michael Vick’s Transformation for the Philadelphia Eagles

Vick starts the 2011 season a changed quarterback—because of his newfound patience.

In the National Football League, quarterbacks—even if they have a lot of ability—have a short shelf life, maybe seven, eight years if they’re lucky. Michael Vick has all the ability in the world, and this is his ninth season in the league. And he’s never been lucky.

That’s probably because he hasn’t been very smart. But since his release from prison after serving 19 months for a dogfighting conviction, he seems to have gotten smarter both on and off the field. So maybe he’s making his own luck.

Before he went to prison in 2007, Vick’s potential seemed to have no ceiling. Nearly everyone who followed pro football called him the most exciting player in the game—and he was. He could out-throw nearly any quarterback in the league and win a foot race with most running backs, and probably many of the receivers he was throwing to. He was, and probably still is, stronger pound-for-pound than just about anyone in the NFL who is given the unfortunate job of trying to tackle him. At his physical peak, he might have been the best athlete in the NFL at any position.

His problem was that, for Vick, exciting meant erratic. A great many writers who wanted to sound hip compared his penchant for improvisation with jazz—it would have been interesting to see if anyone would have said this if he were white—forgetting that great jazz musicians improvise within an assiduously practiced structure. It’s true that opposing defenses almost never knew what he might do in tight situations. But then, neither did his receivers or blockers. Often, you got the impression that Vick himself did not know what he was going to do until he did it—or even what he had done after he did it. That’s less akin to jazz than it is to chaos.

We now know from the blizzard of newspaper, magazine, and Internet stories that followed his downfall that his private life was chaos as well. Vick is 31, and it’s far too early to call him a changed man or say that he’s turned his life around. But though the press has been scrutinizing him more closely than Lindsay Lohan over the last two years, Vick is doing, at least, a very good imitation of a man who has pulled his life together.

Since his release, at which time he was, according to ESPN, “penniless and reviled,” Vick has said the right things and appeared sincere in his regret. He hasn’t had so much as a parking violation on his public record, and has worked overtime, well beyond the community service requirements of his probation, speaking to high school kids and even making appearances with the president of the U.S. Humane Society.

All of this is admirable, but let’s be honest and admit that few of us would care if Vick hadn’t also turned his football career around. Last year he took the Eagles to the NFC championship game, where, despite an outstanding performance (292 yards passing), Philadelphia lost 21-16 to Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, who went on to win the Super Bowl.

In fact, 2010 was Vick’s best season as a quarterback. No, that isn’t quite it—it wasn’t just his best season, it’s the only great season he’s had. His passer rating (if you trust the NFL’s byzantine system or even understand it) was third best in the league and second best in his own conference, behind only the Packers’ Rodgers. What caused the turnaround? Much of the credit goes to Donovan McNabb, who, like Vick, once was a great running quarterback with seemingly unlimited athletic ability. But sheer athletic ability has never been the most important component in a quarterback’s makeup, and successful play calling is the residue of patience, a commodity McNabb was short on until a few years ago.

When McNabb dropped back to throw, he was as likely to take off out of the pocket and try to run for the first down as to try and spot an open receiver. Too many big hits and painful injuries caused him to reconsider. No quarterback whose primary talent was running has ever won a championship in the modern NFL. Most of them don’t make it to age 30, either because some linebacker who got humiliated on national television decided to take a cheap shot out of bounds or because the quarterback himself logged so many extra miles that his legs were shot five or six years sooner than passing quarterbacks.

Michael Vick was even more unpredictable than McNabb. He was an offensive coordinator’s nightmare. A coordinator’s job is to, well, coordinate, and he can’t do that with a quarterback who might improvise on every play. What McNabb (who is now the starting quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings) taught Vick was the virtue of patience, of standing up in the pocket and using his quick feet to give his receivers an extra second or two to break into the open. This kind of quarterbacking is called teamwork.

Maybe Vick is maturing in more ways than one. He’d better be, because the Eagles have made him one of the richest players in the league with a six-year deal worth $100 million, which is terrific but not as good as it might seem as only $40 mil is guaranteed with the rest based on incentives. (Whatever he ends up making, it should go a long way toward satisfying the creditors listed in his 2008 Chapter 11 filing, to whom he owes $19 million.)

A great many fans, not all of them still angry with Vick over the dog fighting, have questioned whether or not a 31-year old quarterback who has never won a conference championship merits that kind of money. The answer, of course, is that he doesn’t, not compared to Bart Starr, Joe Montana, or Tom Brady.

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Unfortunately for the Eagles, those guys weren’t available, so by the laws of supply and demand, Vick is the best there is. And this Sunday is a great time to prove it in front of a national audience. The Eagles, 31-13 winners over the St. Louis Rams in last week’s season opener, play—quel irony!—Vick’s old team, the Atlanta Falcons, in the Georgia Dome in the Sunday night game. The Falcons, crushed 30-12 by the Chicago Bears in their first game, will be desperate to prove they didn’t make a mistake by passing on Vick after he paid his debt to society, and desperate not to begin the season 0-2.

I doubt, though, that with so much on the line that Vick is thinking about anything so petty as revenge. Right now he’s on a roll. For the first time in his career, people are talking not about what Michael Vick could do but about what he’s doing.