By Michael Smith ESPN.com Archive
Updated: Oct. 24, 2006, 4:54 PM ET
Michael Vick isn’t the most accomplished passer and certainly qualifies as an unconventional quarterback but, still, it’s amusing to hear predictions that the Falcons never will win a Super Bowl. At least, not until Vick becomes more of a pocket passer. Or learns to beat teams from the pocket. Or however the doubters phrase it.
Never mind that Vick has played in and lost the same number of conference championship games as Peyton Manning. Or that Vick’s .630 winning percentage as Atlanta’s starter is better than every active quarterback not named Tom Brady, Donovan McNabb, Marc Bulger or Manning (Peyton, that is).
In fact, the top five quarterbacks in career passing yards have only two titles among them. Take it a step further: Among the top 20, only five have won a Super Bowl. Point is, just because a primarily scrambling quarterback hasn’t won the Super Bowl doesn’t mean it can’t happen, especially considering Vick and the Falcons already have come within one win of reaching the Super Bowl. You can doubt whether a running QB like Vick can win the Super Bowl, but acknowledge that doing it the other way doesn’t guarantee ultimate victory, either. If it were that simple Dan Marino, Warren Moon, Fran Tarkenton, Dan Fouts and Jim Kelly each would have a title to show for all those yards they passed for from the pocket. There are plenty of conventional QBs who didn’t win it all.
However he does it, Vick just gets it done. His head coach, Jim Mora, has said it time and again: You can’t judge Vick the way you do other quarterbacks, you have to focus on the results. Vick on Sunday improved to 35-21-1 as a starter. I’ll take the odds that if he stays healthy, one year Vick will win a few games in succession in the postseason.
For now, though, Atlanta is 4-2 and 2-1 in the NFC South with New Orleans and Carolina still having to visit the Georgia Dome. I’m not sure whether Vick’s doubling his career high with four touchdown passes in the Falcons’ 41-38 shootout win over Pittsburgh means that he’s turned the corner as a passer. We’ve jumped the gun and believed he’d done that before, so we’ll wait and see. But what I’m sure I saw Sunday was a leader. That’s an area in which Vick has seemingly been lacking in the past, especially in terms of work ethic, and he’s been criticized for it. But I don’t know how anyone can say Vick isn’t a field general after what he did against the Steelers.
As if Vick isn’t scrutinized enough, he shone the spotlight even brighter on himself last week by saying in an HBO interview that he wished the Falcons’ coaches would show more trust in his passing ability and allow him to throw more. He also acknowledged that he sometimes wished, if even for a day, that he played with an elite wide receiver, such as Marvin Harrison.
Tight end Alge Crumpler told me it was a very quiet — and not in a good way — week in Flowery Branch, Ga.
Perhaps Vick’s comments qualify as throwing one’s coaches and teammates under the proverbial bus. But when it came time to play, Vick drove the bus. And his teammates got on. That’s leadership.
Juxtapose that with Edgerrin James of the Cardinals. Two weeks ago, after a last-minute loss to the Chiefs, the Arizona running back complained publicly about not getting the rock more in crunch time. The following week, with his team trying to hold on against Chicago, James had a fumble returned for a touchdown and apparently blew a pass protection assignment that led to a sack and another fumble returned for a touchdown.
With the onus squarely on him, Vick backed up his demands by tossing three touchdowns to Crumpler and another to wideout Michael Jenkins. Vick’s best play, though, was an improvisation on the game-winning drive in overtime that saw him elude Pittsburgh’s Troy Polamalu and find Crumpler for a 26-yard completion.
Leaders don’t always do so from the lectern, the podium or “Inside the NFL.” Not all leaders say what’s politically correct all the time. But leaders show up and sometimes just will their teams to wins on game day. That’s what Vick did Sunday.
I spoke to Vick the day after Atlanta’s season-opening win at Carolina, when he was efficient in passing for 148 yards and two touchdowns. He talked about how he was beginning to understand not only what he was being asked to do, but what defenses were trying to do in terms of coverage. He acknowledged being a little too happy with himself after his 2002 season, when he passed for nearly 3,000 yards and rushed for nearly 800. He admitted to not applying himself to learning Greg Knapp’s offense the way he should have. So he and his receivers worked hard together in the offseason. It sounded like Vick had come to understand his responsibility as the quarterback.
He had a responsibility to hold up his end of the bargain Sunday after he pleaded for more opportunities to throw, and he delivered the way a leader should.
Vick deserves more props than skepticism after his career performance. The same teammates he dissed earlier, he encouraged when they weren’t playing well or when things weren’t going well against Pittsburgh.
Give credit to Knapp, too, for putting Vick in the best position to succeed against the Steelers. What Knapp did was get Vick out of the pocket and have him throw from the perimeter. It’s called “moving the launch pad.” That way Vick wasn’t as much of a sitting duck and had more of an opportunity to set his feet.
“When Mike sets his feet, he throws balls better than any QB out there,” Crumpler said. “He was throwing darts out there.”
I’m certainly not ready, after one outstanding performance, to say that all is well with the Falcons or that they should change their identity from a running to a passing offense. But Atlanta with a passing game is scary. It already was difficult enough to stop the run without the threat of Vick’s throwing for four scores. Still, teams will continue to try to force Vick to beat them by throwing the football. If he can keep making them pay for that strategy there are sure to be more 40-point games in the Falcons’ future.
We have to remember that Vick is just 26 years old. Manning likes to tell his critics to wait until his career is over before we put it into the context of what he didn’t accomplish. Same with Vick. Maybe he doesn’t do it the way we’re accustomed to, but he’s a quarterback. Sunday he did what quarterbacks are supposed to do, what Vick does a lot for the Falcons. He led his team to a victory it desperately needed.
Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.