- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 20, 2002

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. Dazzling feet and a cannon for an arm couldn't make Michael Vick an instant success in the NFL.
The Atlanta Falcons are banking that after one season, Vick ready or not will take the reins at starting quarterback and run with them.
Two immensely successful seasons at Virginia Tech including a national championship game appearance and a 20-1 record as a starter made Vick the obvious No.1 overall choice for the Atlanta Falcons in the 2001 draft. But the transition to the pros did not come easily for the prized rookie.
"I can honestly say that I didn't know how different the NFL was going to be from college," the soft-spoken Vick said last week before practice. "I knew the speed of the game was faster, but I'm fast. I knew defenses disguised coverages, but I had seen a little bit of that in college. How much different could the game be?"
Vick found out the hard way last year. While he averaged 10.3 yards on the 29 plays on which he took off and ran, he was sacked 23 times once every 5.9 times he dropped back to pass. Since immobile 36-year-old starter Chris Chandler was sacked only once every 9.9 dropbacks, Vick's problems were of recognition, not a sudden lack of evasiveness.
And when Vick managed to get the ball off, he completed just 44.2 percent of his passes. In his first start, he threw for just 32 yards. In his other, he was sacked seven times.
"I had never experienced losing," Vick said. "I had never been beaten around and confused. But right after the game [Oct. 7 against Chicago, the first in which he saw extensive action], I said something like this had to happen to bring me down to earth and let me know that I'm not Superman, that I would have to work for success."
The Falcons weren't concerned either. Vick's 62.7 quarterback rating was worse than all but four quarterbacks with more than 10 attempts in 2001, but it was still better than the rookie marks of former top overall picks like Vinny Testaverde, Terry Bradshaw, John Elway, Troy Aikman and Steve Bartkowski (considered Atlanta's greatest quarterback).
Vick did show flashes of what he can do in a game against Miami, he ducked a blind-side rush from Lorenzo Bromell, turned and raced for a 23-yard gain. Two plays later, the elusive Vick avoided the rush again and fired a bullet to wideout Shawn Jefferson for 45 yards.
So when Chandler's age and salary prompted his release Feb. 25, the keys to the Atlanta offense were given to the shy 22-year-old from Newport News, Va., who is expected to make the Falcons the consistent winner they have never been in nearly four decades in the NFL.
"You can't have [$62]million sitting on the bench," Falcons cornerback Ray Buchanan said. "You've got to let Michael play and make his mistakes. And Michael is way ahead of where he was last year. He knows the plays, so he doesn't have to think as much. When you get a great athlete thinking, he can be very average. I've never doubted Michael. I don't care who you are; it's going to take time. But Michael can be one of the great ones. I've never seen a quarterback this fast. And he has one of the strongest arms I've seen."
Falcons senior adviser Bobby Beathard, who has been in the NFL for 38 of the last 40 seasons, isn't sure he has seen a quarterback with Vick's skills. St. Louis defensive end Leonard Little said last year that Vick's speed put him on "a whole new level" for quarterbacks and that when he learned the system, "It's over!" If Little is right, he will be thankful the Falcons and Rams are no longer division rivals because Atlanta coach Dan Reeves said Vick is rapidly absorbing the offense, though he passed for just 123 yards (on 15 of 27 attempts) during the Falcons' 2-0 preseason start.
"Michael's confidence, his grasp of what we're trying to do and his knowledge of where to go with the ball are all improved," said Reeves, who went through Elway's growing pains in Denver nearly 20 years ago. "Last year, Michael would mess things up: call the formation the wrong way or call the wrong protection and the play would have no chance. Now he really does understand the system and can make the calls without making those mistakes.
"Michael's not as far along as John was at this point because John was in a passing offense in college, but both made natural improvements in their second years. It just takes time."
The Falcons are more than willing to give Vick that time to grow. Not just because of his unlimited potential, but because of his down-to-earth attitude.
"The things that impress me the most about Michael are how hard he works and how coachable he is," linebacker Keith Brooking said. "A lot of guys in his position, the No.1 pick overall with all that fame and fortune, sometimes they don't want to listen."
Beathard, who made the mistake of taking petulant quarterback Ryan Leaf No.2 overall in the 1998 draft, said that experience made him really appreciate Vick's character.
"Michael is the most fantastic kid I've coached," Reeves agreed. "He's as down-to-earth as anybody I've been around who has had as much publicity as he has. Michael's humble. He doesn't think he's anywhere close to being as good as he is. He listens.
"He has all the things you want in a quarterback. You'd like Mike to be further along in the passing game, but he has really worked hard. I'm pleased with where he is. We didn't make the move too soon. He's ready."

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