- The Washington Times - Monday, August 9, 2004

GREENVILLE, S.C. — From the day he played his first game at Virginia Tech, every quarterback has wanted to be like Mike.

Yet the more games Michael Vick played — displaying his lightning speed, rocket arm and amazing agility — it became clear no one could be.

But last August, Vick, a Houdini in cleats, found a situation he couldn’t escape. He was chased out of the pocket and tackled hard during a preseason game with the Baltimore Ravens, breaking his right leg and missing a good portion of the Atlanta Falcons’ season. The team was 2-10 by the time he returned to the starting lineup.

Vick led the Falcons to a 3-1 finish and gave the team hope. But his absence made it clear Atlanta relied too much on its quarterback. Exit old-school coach Dan Reeves and his scripted runs for Vick. Enter new-age coach Jim Mora Jr., offensive coordinator Greg Knapp and a quick-hitting West Coast offense from San Francisco.

But can a scheme predicated on timing, discipline and quick decisions be the right fit for the NFL’s most athletic quarterback but one of its least accurate passers?

One thing’s for certain: Mike likes it.

“The only thing I was concerned about was my ability to get outside the pocket and make plays down the field, but after strapping on the pads and being able to make some plays improvising when the protection broke down showed me that it won’t be too much of a difference,” Vick said last week at the Falcons’ training camp.

“Being in the West Coast system is going to help me get the ball out of my hands quicker, make quicker decisions, use my checkdowns more. But when things break down in protection, it’s back to Plan B.”

When Knapp was named offensive coordinator, Vick talked to former 49ers quarterback Steve Young — another elusive left-handed passer — about the offense.

“Steve said I was going to love it, that I was going to really excel in this offense,” said Vick, who dispelled doubts about his study habits by working hard since March to learn the new offense. “I’m learning to love it.”

The West Coast scheme works best with accurate passers like Super Bowl champions Young, Brett Favre, Joe Montana and Brad Johnson, each of whom has no worse than a 61.3 completion percentage for his career.

Vick, however, has completed 52 percent of his passes in his career, a figure Knapp hopes to raise above 60 percent, though probably not this season. The Falcons point out Vick is more accurate on the move, which will occur more frequently than in Reeves’ seven-step drop system.

Knapp said he has no intention of turning his thoroughbred into a plowhorse.

“As an offensive coordinator, you almost have to keep yourself under control and not create too many plays because Mike does have the talent to make you think, ‘I can do this, that or the other,’” Knapp said. “You don’t want to overdo it. Just let him play the game.”

The 24-year-old Vick certainly can play the game. He led the Hokies to a 20-1 mark in two years as a starter, including a berth in the national championship game his freshman year.

After being drafted with the top pick in 2001, Vick sat and learned most of that season. Then, he fulfilled some lofty expectations in 2002 by rushing for 777 yards and passing for 2,936 while leading the Falcons — 16-32 the previous three seasons — to a wild-card berth and the first victory ever by a visiting team in the playoffs at Green Bay’s Lambeau Field. He also became the second youngest Pro Bowl quarterback that year.

“When you play Green Bay, you’ve always said, ‘There’s the best player [Brett Favre] playing the most valuable position,’” Falcons general manager Rich McKay said. “It’s one thing to have the best player who’s playing defensive end or linebacker. They don’t affect every game. Brett affects every game. So can Michael.”

And the numbers prove it.

Since Vick’s arrival, Atlanta is 12-8-1 when he starts, 9-18 when he doesn’t. Theoretically, the West Coast offense will allow Vick’s teammates to carry more of the load and help him avoid pass rushers, thus keeping him healthy. Recently though, a blister on his left thumb and a sore right hamstring have kept him off the practice field.

“Last year, I was very excited about the season … and things just came crashing down,” Vick said. “I don’t want to experience that feeling again. I want to take the preseason games as they come, take training camp as it comes. When the season opens, that’s when I’ll get excited because I made it through, and whatever happens from that point on happens.”

That is a sign Vick is maturing. He was so shy two summers ago that he often looked down and barely spoke above a whisper during interviews. He now speaks more freely with reporters and even pokes fun at his bushy hair, which he vowed not to cut until the Falcons win the Super Bowl.

“Being around longer and being in the huddle has helped Mike become a leader,” receiver Brian Finneran said. “If it was third-and-long, he used to call the play, we would go to the line and we wouldn’t hear another word from him. Now, he’ll be like, ‘Watch that corner blitz’ or ‘Be alert for the safety coming, I’m going to hit you right now.’”

He’s confident enough to boast that he can be the greatest quarterback ever, but Vick also realizes highlight film plays are meaningless without victories.

“A great quarterback wins games,” Vick said. “I’ve just gained some experience. I know how the game’s played. I know what it takes to win. I’m able to pick up offenses a bit quicker and find little knicks and knacks in defenses that will give away a coverage. If it moves the chains, I’ll take it. Football isn’t [always] coming out and throwing a 50-yard bomb or scrambling for 25 yards. Sometimes it takes time to move the ball down the field.”

And to develop into a leader and a superstar.

“This is my team,” Vick said. “I’m the quarterback. I’m the leader. Last year was a great [learning] experience. I don’t think this team will let that [collapse] happen again. As long as I’m healthy, this team will go, but if something happens to me, I think this team would be able to pick up the slack.”

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