By Skip Wood, USA TODAY
Mike Johnson's jaw drops just as regularly as the rest of us when watching the tackle-avoidance ability demonstrated by Michael Vick during Atlanta Falcons games. But the Falcons' first-year quarterbacks coach has spent the last several months attempting to render such scrambling scenarios all but kaput.
Namely, throw first.
And run — run like the wind, in fact — only when you have to.
"Look, Mike's completion percentage last year decreased later in the season, and part of that was because his body was beaten up," Johnson says. "He took a lot of hits, and his body wore down. (Related item: Falcons team report)
"We think he can be the same player, doing the same things he's always done, but we're trying to find ways to keep him in the best health."
Toward that end, the man who coached Atlanta's receivers a year ago is working with Vick's feet, attempting to regulate the movement that has made Vick one of the league's more exciting players. Last season, his second in the NFL and first as a starter, he completed 231 of 421 passes for 2,946 yards and 16 touchdowns with eight interceptions. He also ran 113 times for 777 yards — the most in the NFL by a quarterback — and eight TDs.
"Mike can flat-out throw it, that's the bottom line, and he's already a good passer," Johnson says. "But he can be a great passer, and we're trying to take those fundamentals and sharpen them to where, well, the sky's the limit. He already has such a strong arm and the ability to place balls in certain places, even when he's late.
"You don't notice his (mistakes) with the naked eye unless you're a coach. If he can improve his foot movement, and it's already better than most quarterbacks, Mike is going to be so much more than he already is."
Vick is ready and willing.
"I'm not going to run as much as I did last year, because I'm learning how to play the game," he says. "I'm getting better inside the pocket. That happens every year."
Not that he's ditching all running intentions.
"I have to do it," he said. "It's one of my weapons. It gives me that edge the other guys don't have."
And despite Johnson's work, what of the critics who decry his work as far too impromptu?
"I don't care what people say," Vick says. "I know I'm going to be better inside the pocket. They need to watch more football if they don't think I can make plays inside the pocket."