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Atlanta’s Vick still struggling to outrun his critics

The greatest athlete in the NFL finally was supposed to turn into a quarterback this season.

Early on, Michael Vick seemed ready at last to fulfill his promise for the Atlanta Falcons. Vick threw for seven touchdowns and 523 yards and posted a passer rating of 119.3 in victories over the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals in late October that raised the Falcons' record to 5-2.

Everyone liked Mike.

Four straight losses and one hand gesture later and the bad Michael was on full display again.

The Falcons suffered a 31-13 thrashing by the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, and Vick responded to the jeers from the Georgia Dome crowd by making an obscene gesture to fans as he left the field.

Vick ran 12 times in that loss for 166 yards, falling 7 yards shy of his NFL single-game record by a quarterback. He also, however, threw for just 84 yards and posted an ignominious 47.9 passer rating.

The NFL fined Vick $10,000 for the obscene gesture, for which he repeatedly apologized.

Still, the events of the past month brought back questions that long surrounded the 26-year-old superstar from Virginia Tech. Will Vick ever be a true quarterback? Is he a leader? Can the Falcons win with him taking the snaps?

"I didn't try and go out there and make every play on my own, because it's not going to happen," Vick said. "I threw the ball to the guys when they were open ... and ran the ball when I had to. I didn't try to do too much. I was trying to win the game and do some extra things."

Those who have worked with Vick defend him as hard as he jukes defenders.

"Mike's a great athlete, but he's also a great quarterback," said Jim Mora, Vick's coach the last three seasons. "He's just a great quarterback in a different way than we're used to defining great quarterbacks. He's kind of creating his own mold for greatness as a quarterback."

Running back Warrick Dunn, a teammate for five years, also dismissed the criticism.

"Everyone dwells on [Vick] being this dropback passer, this prototype quarterback," Dunn said. "Mike's not a prototype. He's a special player with special abilities. He just needs to play his game and not worry about what everyone else has to say."

Vick refuted the criticism himself this week by simply saying, "I'm a quarterback, and I know how to play the position."

Washington Redskins running back T.J. Duckett and tight end Brian Kozlowski played with Vick on the Falcons, and they say there is no problem with Vick's work ethic or leadership.

"Mike gets a bad rap," Duckett said. "He works hard. Do you want him to be there before the doors open and be the one to turn the lights out? He does his job. Mike's a leader, a captain. As much attention and status as he gets, if you didn't know who he was and he was in a room with you, you would have no idea. Mike doesn't put on a big look-at-me show. He's just a regular guy except he can change clothes in a phone booth."

Vick's unparalleled athleticism at quarterback is beyond dispute. Sometime this month, he undoubtedly will become the first quarterback to rush for 1,000 yards in a season.

"Michael's lightning fast, and he's got an arm like a cannon," Kozlowski said. "It's amazing how strong his arm is. In practice, he could throw it 70 yards across the field, hit a backside corner route on a scramble. I've never seen anyone else who could do that. You always knew you had a chance to win when you were playing with Michael."

True enough. Vick holds a career record of 38-27-1 and has led the Falcons to an NFC Championship game and two divisional-round playoff games in his three full years as starting quarterback. Vick's career passer rating, however, is a mediocre 75.1, putting him just ahead of humdrum quarterbacks Steve Bartkowski and Chris Miller in the franchise record book.

Mora served as an assistant with the San Francisco 49ers during the final three seasons of Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young's career. Mora likes to point out that Young, the highest-rated passer in NFL history, didn't start out close to the level of performance he reached later in his career.

Young gained two years of experience in the USFL, then played two seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before he was acquired by the 49ers in 1987 to back up Joe Montana. Still, Young went to San Francisco with a 3-16 career record and a 63.1 passer rating.

"Steve was much further along in his career than Mike was when he first took over the team, and it was tough on Steve," Mora said. "People said, 'This guy is not a quarterback. He's a running back, and he's [hurting] this offense.' That's kind of similar to what Mike's facing right now. He's 26 years old. He's a tremendous athlete with a great work ethic and a real desire to be an outstanding player in this league. When you combine those three things, it's a pretty good formula for a guy who's got a chance to be great."

Unlike Young, however, Vick doesn't have a Jerry Rice or a Terrell Owens on the receiving end of his passes, one reason his completion percentage this season ranks ahead only those of neophytes Vince Young and Andrew Walter. With his butterfingered receivers letting him down by leading the league in dropped passes, Mora keeps telling Vick to beat defenses with his feet.

'You play to the guy's strengths," Mora said. "I want Mike to do what he does. I tell him that every game: 'Go be who you are.' "

Trouble is, that's not nearly good enough right now for Vick, the Falcons or their fans.

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