Vick ready to make quantum leap for Falcons
By Jim Corbett, USA TODAY Sports Weekly
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Michael Vick was on the move again. Only this time, the NFL's most feared game breaker was running to pass. The Falcons quarterback drifted back into a pocket that began collapsing like Enron.
Michael Vick will still be running in 2005, but expect a more poised passing presence from the fifth-year quarterback.
By Tom DiPace, USA TODAY Sports Weekly
Vick stepped up, feet bouncing as he kept his eyes and slingshot left arm trained downfield. Vick was so focused on finding an open receiver, he never saw rookie defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux fall at his feet just as Vick flicked a dart 10 yards down the middle of the field.
Wide receiver Peerless Price dove for the football as Vick tumbled over Babineaux, sprawling face-first onto the grass as his helmet popped off. For a few scary seconds, silence hung as heavy as late-July Georgia humidity. Everyone waited for the franchise to say something. Anything.
After all, two years ago, the Falcons' 2003 season dead-ended in the second preseason game when Vick's right leg snapped under Ravens linebacker Adalius Thomas. Vick missed 11 games and Atlanta's 5-11 finish got coach Dan Reeves fired.
While players, coaches and fans held their breath, Vick shouted to Price from the ground. His words more than elicited relief. They were a statement about dialed-in focus.
"Did you catch it?" Vick asked.
Better believe it.
"I just feel I have to do more," Vick says later.
It's the 2005 evolution of the revolution. After an 11-5 finish and a bitter, 27-10 NFC title game loss to Philadelphia, expectations are high that this will be Vick's quantum leap year. This is the season when a more experienced Vick coalesces with a double-jeopardy version of "The Michael Vick Experience."
"There will be a massive jump for Mike this season," Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young says. "It's like drinking from a fire hose in Year One of the West Coast offense. Mike knows he has to develop the ability to get the ball out of his hand and make reads and develop as a passer.
"It'll come. When it does, that's when he'll be doubly dangerous."
Vick is 25, as young as 2003 Heisman Trophy-winning Oklahoma quarterback Jason White, a rookie with the Titans who recently retired because of bad knees.
Happiness is a Blank check
The Falcons have been working hard in practice to close the gap on the Eagles, but a little boost from the owner doesn't hurt.
Players and executives call the new five-building, $10M training camp condominium compound bankrolled by owner Arthur Blank "Casablanka," "The Falcons' Four Seasons" and "Club Blank."
Bordering the team's two Flowery Branch, Ga., practice fields, the seven-acre compound's centerpiece clubhouse boasts eight flat-screen plasma televisions, a 60-inch big-screen TV, three pool tables, video games, shuffleboard, full kitchen and oversized leather chairs designed to hold 300-pounders. Blank has spared no expense in return for his organization's best effort.
"Arthur's given us the opportunity to create a very special environment," GM Rich McKay says. "I have no question that Atlanta will be a very popular place for players to come because of all Arthur provides."
Just as McKay added key free agent linebackers Ed Hartwell and Ike Reese to bring championship leadership on defense and special teams, Blank signed Michael Vick to a 10-year, $130 million extension in December.
Executive vice president Ray Anderson said, "He's given us the edge of a working environment second to none."
— Jim Corbett, USA TODAY Sports Weekly
Entering his fifth NFL season and second year in the complex West Coast system, Vick wants to be everything his unprecedented talents say he should, and he wants to stick it to his skeptics. Running quarterback? Catch this.
"It's good to have critics because that's what motivates you and helps you take your game to another level," Vick says. "They talked about Michael Jordan and said he didn't have a jump shot. They say the same thing about me — I can't throw the football and all that. Say whatever you want about me. It makes me strive harder."
Vick vows this season will be the intersection of coast-to-coast playmaker and patient passer.
He had his sharpest preseason outing in last week's 23-7 win against Jacksonville. Vick highlighted a 5-for-10, 44-yard passing night with a perfectly thrown 18-yard touchdown to new go-to receiver Michael Jenkins.
He drew resolve from a post-championship game conversation with Philadelphia quarterback Donovan McNabb after Vick was held to 136 yards passing and 26 rushing. McNabb, 28, is the mature leader and West Coast master Vick aspires to emulate.
"Donovan said: 'No matter what, stay strong and continue to understand there's always next year. Your opportunity is going to come,' " Vick says. "Sometimes you have to have your heart broken to become a champion.
"If it's meant to be for you, it's going to happen."
Vick has worked hard with offensive coordinator Greg Knapp and quarterbacks coach Mike Johnson to raise last year's 56.4 completion percentage to a level approaching his 65.3% winning percentage. Vick considers that a quarterback's most impressive bottom line. The Falcons are 24-13-1 with Vick as the starter, 3-10 without him since 2002.
"When he begins to find his second, alternate and outlet receivers, when he moves out of the pocket and stretches the pocket to hit those guys, that's when he'll start taking defenses apart," says Bill Walsh, father of the West Coast offense. "There's a total upside to everything he does. He'll demonstrate that this year, especially with the gifts Michael has that are so spectacular."
Since early in training camp, Vick has made quicker, more confident reads, his bullwhip arm snapping strong, accurate throws.
As if to underscore Walsh's point, Vick looked as if he might take off running against Jacksonville, then, feathered a nifty dump-off pass to Brian Finneran.
"Man, this time last year, I was just trying to make the right reads," Vick says. "Now I know 90% of the playbook. I'm seeing it. It's just a matter of getting the ball there."
Vick is never going to be a pocket passer in the Peyton Manning, Tom Brady sense. Everyone wants to slap a label on him. Think of Vick as a pro football version of NBA star Allen Iverson playing point guard. Vick is a quarterback with 4.2 speed on a never-ending fast break, stressing defenses with his ability to beat them off the run, and now the pass. Vick doesn't just have the West Coast three-, five- or seven-step drops. His Barry Sanders feet are propelled by rare peripheral vision.
Make no mistake. There will be interceptions and bad days. That is the price of growth. But Vick's improvement as a passer can't come at the expense of freedom to create.
Last season, Vick averaged 7.5 yards per carry with three rushing TDs and 902 yards, third most by a quarterback in NFL history.
Though his 6-0, 215-pound frame won't long withstand the 120-carry punishment his fearless running invites, you don't keep a breathtaking talent contained in the pocket like human lint.
"The one thing we never want to do with Mike Vick is discourage him from being Mike Vick, which is one of the greatest athletes in all of sports," Falcons coach Jim Mora says. "Every time he takes the snap, you go: 'Wow! What is he going to do now?' You don't want to miss the moment he might produce. It's like (the NHL's Wayne) Gretzky with the puck, Tiger Woods with a wedge.
"You're liable to see something you've never ever seen before."
So Vick is going to run less, right?
"No!" Vick says. "If need be, I'll run just as much as I did last year. The thing now is I know how to protect myself. A few years ago, I was running reckless. Now, I'm sliding and getting out of bounds for the longevity, baby — for my season, for my career."
It's vital to Vick's improvement as a passer that a couple of receivers step up to take pressure off Pro Bowl tight end Alge Crumpler.
Jenkins, White: Just what Vick needed
Michael Jenkins and rookie Roddy White have shown encouraging flashes of being the go-to receivers Vick can trust to elevate Atlanta's downfield passing game.
Jenkins has prototype, 6-4, 217-pound athleticism. Last year's first-round pick out of Ohio State showed up as that go-to receiver with a sharp slant route on his 18-yard TD catch in Atlanta's 23-7 win against Jacksonville on Aug. 25. Jenkins, who caught seven passes as a rookie, caught four passes for 35 yards, including another TD from backup Matt Schaub.
White is a 6-1, 208 deep threat with 4.45 speed. Many analysts rated the Alabama-Birmingham product as a second-rounder because he needed to refine his route running, but GM Rich McKay saw rare ability to make the spectacular catch with plenty of speed afterward. The concern now is if White can recover from a high ankle sprain suffered two weeks ago to play in the opener.
— Jim Corbett, USA TODAY Sports Weekly
Price didn't live up to his five-year, $35 million deal after six touchdowns in two seasons. A concussion and rib injury and inconsistent blocking in the run game all added up to him getting cut by the team Tuesday, despite the $5.7 million salary cap hit the team took for dropping him.
"It's all about having the proper talent around you, too," Vick says. "The right people in the right places."
GM Rich McKay, who helped build a Super Bowl winner in Tampa Bay, got Vick another weapon in first-round draft choice Roddy White, who was impressive before a high ankle sprain two weeks ago.
"As much as I'm one who says you've got to pay attention to defense to compete for championships on a consistent basis, we're a team that has Michael Vick, and we can never forget that," McKay says. "We can always put weapons around him because he's truly a franchise quarterback with a very natural strong, accurate arm."
Second-year pro Michael Jenkins announced his emergence as the No. 1 receiver Mora has sought with his impressive breakout against Jacksonville, and seventh-year veteran Brian Finneran has stepped up with two preseason TDs.
A better passing game is essential for Atlanta to take that next step in the NFC, where Philadelphia remains the team to beat.
No one knows this more than new Falcons linebacker/special teams ace Ike Reese, who was on the opposite sideline that bitterly cold, late-January day.
"Mike's improvement as a passer is noticeable," Reese says. "He's taking throws downfield with confidence, and we're catching the ball for him. It's the first year he's had the same offensive coordinator, and now he's coming into his second year of being in the same offense and that offense is hard to pick up.
"It took Donovan four to five years before he really flourished.
"What's so much more dangerous is when a quarterback of his caliber takes off running to throw. That was when Donovan gained the confidence to run around to allow the receivers to get open. It's just tough to defend because he's capable of breaking a run of 10-15 yards. But at the same time, he's setting you up, running to make the 20-yard pass. I see that in Mike right now."
Mora, 43, began his NFL career in 1985 as a go-fer for then-Chargers coach Don "Air" Coryell. Mora has been mentored by his heart-on-his-sleeve father, Jim, the more laid-back Steve Mariucci and Walsh. Mora blended their strengths into his high-energy passion, toughness and motivational discipline.
"Jim's a dynamic man with incredible determination, willpower and energy," Walsh says. "He's the ultimate in a driven person who has high expectations. The people around him respond. He's on the cutting edge with an outstanding football mind."
Mora, who runs stadium stairs before games, smashed his headset into the frozen Lincoln Financial Field turf when January's championship game was out of reach.
"It had an Eagles sticker on it," Mora grins.
Mora and Vick are from different backgrounds, but they have forged a fast bond as demonically competitive winners.
"Mike wants to be special," Mora says. "But he doesn't want to be treated differently. I've been around and coached a lot of great players from Dan Fouts, Charlie Joyner, Kellen Winslow ... Mike's commitment to being a great player is as good as I've seen.
"What we love about Mike, besides who he is, is who he's going to become as a player."
Falcons executive vice president Ray Anderson marvels at the quarterback work in progress he's watched develop since Atlanta traded with San Diego to draft Vick first overall in 2001.
"It's like watching an unbelievable movie or novel unfold," Anderson says.
The latest chapter should be the most riveting. Atlanta's Superman has Super Bowl XL vision.
"That loss to Philadelphia left a bitter taste in our mouths, but our motivation is to come back this year and try to top that," Vick says. "I'm excited about where I'm at right now. I can imagine what the future holds as I continue to play in this offense."
"Mike wants to be that much more lethal by making himself a great throwing quarterback," Pro Bowl defensive end Patrick Kerney says. "Once that happens, good luck stopping him.
"I've always looked at Michael as being on the same athletic level as Michael Jordan. When someone said Jordan couldn't do something, the next year he said, 'Watch this,' and proved them wrong. One year they said he couldn't play defense, then he won Defensive Player of the Year. They said he couldn't shoot the three, and he won the three-point shooting contest.
"Don't tell Michael Vick what he can't do because he'll prove you wrong."
Vick has held back this preseason, looking to survive until Sept. 12, when the Falcons host the Eagles on Monday night.
"I'm coming out this season to show everybody that I'm the best, or trying to be the best, or one day, that I'll be the best," Vick says. "It might not happen this year. It might happen in '07 or '09. One day, you're just going to see all the hard work pay off."
"We feel like we have the perfect team right now."