He Made the Difference
TSN on Falcons/VICK (long but worth the read)
Reeling Vick in might sound crazy, but...
August 5, 2004 Print it
Here's a great plan. Take football's most exciting player and dull him down. Might as well cast Halle Berry as Miss Daisy. Give Michael Vick structure? Tell him to toss away the ball instead of trying to make a play? What kind of coaching is this?
Damn good and smart, that's what.
Think West Coast offense directed by the most athletically gifted quarterback ever. Think Steve Young with even more giddy-up. Think a wiser, more focused Vick acknowledging that career longevity is more important that diving fully exposed for an extra yard.
You want the most radical and most exciting coaching move in training camp this summer? Then focus on what's happening with the Falcons, who fell off everyone's radar in 2003 after Vick's right leg came out a broken loser from a preseason tackle. Mix a bunch of imposing playmakers with Vick's conversion to West Coast karma, toss in the high-energy influence of new coach Jim (I'm not Junior) Mora, and you've got this season's Panthers.
Granted, it won't seem natural the first time you see Vick, the king of improv, mimicking the best and most boring staple of the West Coast by dropping back three steps and throwing a quick slant to Peerless Price. But that's the impressive part of this new Vick model. Just as the Broncos' West Coast scheme is significantly different than the version the 49ers ran under Bill Walsh, the Falcons' approach will introduce yet another layer to this brilliant offensive creation.
What we have here is Vick on the edge — and an edgy Vick is a dangerous Vick, which should scare the bejibbers out of opponents everywhere. He'll be involved in an abundance of movement plays — the old-fashioned rollout, where he is deliberately freed from the pocket and choreographed to exploit the far reaches of defenses. He never has felt that comfortable in the pocket, so placing him in space, where he is convinced he is invincible, has so much upside they ought to be ordering the engraving on the league MVP trophy right now. What is he going to do on that edge — pass or run? Defensive staffs already are preparing for all-nighters.
None of the above means the Falcons have collapsed the pocket and put it in storage. Vick the dropback passer still will appear — but in a repackaged form. There will be lots of abbreviated backward journeys and few of those prolonged seven-step versions. Everything will be predicated on instant decisions, quick releases and careful preservation of the most precious bundle of talent in the NFL. For sure, you'll witness few, if any, of the planned runs that former coach Dan Reeves incorporated so heavily into Vick's quarterback developmental plan. The new staff has decided Vick the modified tailback equals too much injury risk.
That's also why if you attend a Falcons practice, you'll be astonished how much Vick is praised profusely for, well, doing very little. His most glowing accolades in offseason drills came when he executed one of two actions: tossing the ball out of bounds to avoid a sack or converting a 3-yard dump-off to running back T.J. Duckett. That's like watching Barry Bonds pick up another walk, but for the Falcons coaches, it's pure joy. They feel a sometimes blah Vick is a good Vick; it indicates the emergence of a quarterback who is starting to grasp what Joe Montana and Young and Brett Favre also had to learn — in the West Coast, being safe and smart is really, really good.
Vick already has thrown more checkdowns to running backs this offseason than he did in his previous three years as a pro. During one 2-minute drill in June, he completed four of these Roger Craig specials and came away smiling, even though this was akin to Lance Armstrong pedaling a tricycle. "You want to eliminate the six, seven, eight plays every game where, in the past, he would take a hit," says offensive coordinator Greg Knapp. "One of the secrets to this offense is that you don't need a big play on every down."
OK, but where does that leave the Michael Vick we love — the scrambling, twisting, twirling, tackle-me-if-you-can dervish, the NFL's No. 1 Fear Factor, the biggest difference-maker and most electrifying player in the league?
"He's still here," Vick says, nodding vigorously in the affirmative. "I'm going to make plays. Lots of them. I've just been given a different system in which to do my thing. And I'm loving it."
Maybe there is something to the notion about stars aligning at the right time and how that changes bits and pieces of our universe. Certainly, this appears to be the correct moment for Mora and Knapp to introduce Vick to a new plan. At 24, Vick still is so young, yet he is strikingly more mature than when he first sprinted into the league as a brash underclassman. And that damaged leg, which laid him up for 3 1/2 agonizing months last fall, chipped away at that part of him that foolishly felt he could be reckless yet immune to injury. He became receptive to ideas that promised to improve his consistency and extend his career. Besides, Mora and Knapp both transferred from the 49ers with West Coast credibility, and Knapp even had coached Young, Vick's quarterback role model. That allowed the coaches a foot inside Vick's door, which now has been kicked wide open.
But perils galore reside on the other side of that door. As with any gifted artist, there is an excruciating and challenging line to walk between development and restriction, between proper guidance and muffling of uniqueness, between allowing Michelangelo to create masterpieces and turning him into a house painter. There is no playbook governing this rarified air. But if you screw up and turn the screws too tight, you get Tony Banks instead of Michael Vick.
"Michael is a guy who truly thinks touchdown every time he breaks the huddle," says Falcons general manager Rich McKay. "You've got to train him a little bit to take what defenses give him, but at the same time, you don't want to take away from him what has made him special. We all realize that, and it is an everyday work in progress. That's why I don't think there is a system that is necessarily better for him. Rather, it is up to the operatives of the system to figure out what are the parts that fit him best."
McKay better think that way. He's the guy who hired Mora, the former 49ers defensive coordinator, fully knowing Mora wanted Knapp to run his offense, which meant introducing Vick to the West Coast. So this represents a franchise decision, a gut feeling that Walsh's creation can be tweaked to allow Vick's special gifts to flourish while at the same time increasing his efficiency, consistency and accuracy, all of which have not been strong points. This also needs to work because the Falcons' defense, though improved from last year, still isn't good enough to overwhelm opponents.
Now, Vick must prove the Falcons' brain trust is right. "To us, he is not a West Coast quarterback," says Bills G.M. Tom Donahoe. "He is a unique talent, and it is hard to structure something around him that may not take advantage of his talents. You have a threat, and you have to figure out ways to use that threat."
What Vick hasn't been is a precise passer, which happens to be pretty high on the list of most important traits for a West Coast quarterback. This is an offense built on timing and dependability, not on a quarterback hurriedly dismissing his reads and shifting into playground mode. You only have to know Vick's career completion percentage (52.2) to understand Donahoe's concern, particularly when compared with West Coast benchmarks (Montana, 63.2; Young, 64.3; Favre, 61.3).
But the Falcons are convinced Vick can improve his accuracy to above 55 percent this year — and eventually to plus-60 — mostly by taking advantage of the checkoff passes that are available on virtually every play. They also have discovered his marksmanship on the run is surprisingly sharp — in fact, he throws more accurately when moving than in the pocket — confirming their push to get him on the edge. But for all of this to work, Vick has to conform his mind-set. He feels he can change a game's outcome as long as he has the ball in his grasp, and who's to argue? The problem is, that results in too many scrambles, too many hits and too much water-cooler time for Price, Duckett, running back Warrick Dunn and tight end Alge Crumpler. To change his thinking, Vick started meeting three times a week beginning March 2 with Knapp and quarterbacks coach Mike Johnson. The discussions commenced at 7:30 a.m., followed by conditioning and on-field footwork instruction. Vick was on time every time, and his study extended deep into June. It was a commitment that had been missing in his career.
It helped that Vick talked to fellow lefty Young about the offense, and it helped that he watched Young and other West Coast masters on tape provided by Mora and Knapp. Vick came away understanding the importance of his mind in determining success. "You could see how Steve played with his brain," Vick says. "That is what every great quarterback needs to be able to do. You have to be quick-witted, make good decisions while letting your athletic ability take over. They want the ball out of my hands quickly, and when there is nothing there, be smart about it. If I have to sacrifice a little, I will do that. That makes it easier on everyone, allows everyone to get involved and be part of the game. And it takes a lot of the pressure off me."
That's what his teammates want to hear. "He doesn't have to do it on his own," says Dunn, who is returning from a foot injury. "It is the next step for him, so he's not just a running quarterback but a complete quarterback. He can win games with his feet, his arm, his mind and by utilizing the talent around him. Get the ball into the hands of the guys who also are getting paid to make plays. It's scary to see how good he is in this offense." Center Todd McClure senses that, too. "There are nights I can't sleep thinking about the potential we have," he says.
The Falcons certainly need the Vick experiment to work. He is the team's lone marquee player, and his charismatic style could take this woebegone franchise, which never has enjoyed back-to-back winning seasons in its 38-year history, to places where Cowboys and Packers usually romp. The momentum created in 2002 by Vick's amazing assortment of highlight plays and the team's unexpected sprint into the second round of the playoffs was doused by the 2003 flop, which began with Vick's injury, continued through an embarrassing defensive crumble and concluded with Reeves' departure three weeks before the schedule's end, after he had lost 10 games and the attention of his players.
Vick feels responsible for the Falcons' decline. A six-week injury turned into a 15-week healing marathon during which questions arose about his dedication to rehab and his close relationship with owner Arthur Blank. "I have a lot of respect for Dan," Vick says. "He gave me an opportunity to play; he traded for a chance to draft me. But I couldn't play until I was ready. It's as simple as that." By the time Vick returned to his starting spot, the Falcons were 2-10. He helped lead the Falcons over the Panthers and added two more victories in the final three weeks. "I had to prove to myself I could still play and my leg would hold up," he says. "And I had to show my teammates I was still there for them."
Blank viewed last year's collapse, when the Falcons finished 29th on offense and 32nd on defense, as a pivotal moment for his investment. He is among the new breed of owner who thrives on the energy generated by his team, who wants to be deeply involved in its every nuance, who views the organization as a community with the ability to have long-term effect on the outside populace. Reeves was old school; Blank, co-founder of Home Depot, wanted young and supercharged people running the team. He hired McKay, 45, from Tampa Bay to run the football operation, and McKay, in turn, surprised everyone by picking Mora, 42, as his coach. Mora has introduced extreme oomph and nonstop enthusiasm, in sharp contrast to Reeves' stoicism and patriarchal ways.
In Blank's world, a coach cannot just coach. He must penetrate the fan base, act as a public spokesman and understand that his obligations extend beyond X's and O's. In Mora — a confirmed football junky who grew up in NFL locker rooms trailing his dad, the former Saints and Colts coach — Blank found his perfect soul mate. Mora and his staff hit the ground sprinting in Atlanta and nearly wore out their players with quick-paced practices. Everything is about tempo, being positive and upbeat. "It's what we needed," McClure says. "Last year was horrible. There was a lull in the locker room — no energy at all. Now, in practice, coach Mora beats us to the next drill sometimes."
McKay, who helped construct the Bucs' Super Bowl XXXVII winner, was dazzled by his interview with Mora, and that vaulted him ahead of Lovie Smith, who had worked with McKay in Tampa. "He is personable, and he connects with you," McKay says. "And he has made it fun around here. That was one of Arthur's requirements: Let's create an atmosphere where people enjoy coming to work every day." It also helped that Mora wanted to drop the 3-4 defense, which was a disaster last year under Wade Phillips, and use the 4-3. McKay already had decided the team's personnel was better suited to the 4-3; the new coach had to buy into this conclusion.
It is a masterful hire. The Pearl Jam-loving Mora will be among the next special coaches in the league. Plus, it finally has allowed him to clear up some confusion about his name. His dad is Jim Ernest Mora; he is Jim Lawrence Mora. So he's no junior. Just call him Jimmy, like his family does. He already has received elite advice: conversations with his father, letters from close friend Dick Vermeil, even counseling from Al Davis, who told him that when he is on the sideline "be demonstrative and act like you are coaching even when you aren't." Mora's biggest coup was hiring Alex Gibbs, the revered line coach who helped mold the Broncos' terrific running offense for so many years. When Mora was a young assistant with the Chargers, he and Gibbs got into a fight at a golf tournament; now he looks to Gibbs for sage advice
But Gibbs, at 63, isn't in Atlanta just to be a support mechanism. He grasps how quickly this team — including a running game he is sure to strengthen — can be good. Knapp also understands the team's potential. His enlightenment began the first night on the job, when he sat in his office watching a tape of last year's victory over Carolina. After a few minutes of seeing the Panthers stumble around foolishly trying to contain Vick, he asked Mora to join him, and they gazed, astonished. "I kept saying, 'Wow, wow,' " Knapp says. "I knew Mike was special, but to really see it 'wow.' And to be in charge? It is some responsibility."
By now, Vick is right there with them. "Last year was a waste," he says. "I really haven't played in two years. But I'm so excited; I know this is the right offense for me. And by the time Jim finishes one of his speeches, I am saying, 'Where is my helmet and pads? Let's strap it up right now.' "
Walsh once told Mora that Vick was the ideal West Coast quarterback. On September 12, we'll begin learning if he is right. The opponent? Of all teams, Walsh's legacy, the 49ers.
Senior writer Paul Attner covers the NFL for Sporting News.