Monday, November 27, 2006

Michael Vick destined for mediocrity

The Michael Vick experiment is over and the results are in: the NFL has no room for running quarterbacks. Don't get me wrong, Vick can be fun to watch but when he faces a strong defense with enough depth to keep him contained Vick makes mistakes. Big mistakes that result in key losses.

With Vick under center the Falcons have proven themselves to be a classic study in mediocrity and when you look at the big picture of Vick's career he falls far short of the performance standards set by great quarterbacks.

Vick apologists will claim that he plays a different game and that the key is designing the game to his strengths but that's what the Falcons have done and the result is .500 football. Vick can hurt a defense with his feet but his arm tends to let the team down in big games. He's got play makers down field and a solid ground game. The Falcons aren't perfect but a lot of that is thanks to Vick's inconsistent passing and bad attitude. They just don't have the leadership on the field in tight games.

Michael Vick is a remarkable athlete with a powerful arm and his struggles are similar to those experienced by John Elway who became an consistent field general later in his career when his body needed more help from his head. Vick's problem is that he has always been able to make things happen, but he gets stopped when he runs into a good team with smart coaches. Like Elway, Vick seems capable of pulling his team out of deep holes but unlike Elway, Vick's arm isn't as reliable down the stretch. That takes away an aspect of the game that is important in managing the clock. Both quarterbacks share a similar distinction in putting their teams in tough spots. Elway's accuracy and awareness made him a little better at overcoming his mistakes. Even so, Elway didn't win the big games until the very end of his career.

At this juncture, Mike Vick has more in common with Randall Cunningham than John Elway. Like Cunningham, Vick has remarkable athletic ability a knack for making spectacular plays. Both share the distinction of being characterized in enduring highlights that capture the essence of their ability. The fact that both of these players are immortalized for making brilliant plays in virtually meaningless games is telling. You have to make things happen when they matter most and so far Vick seems to come unglued when the pressure is on.

It's not about middle fingers. Vick was frustrated and upset and he vented frustration at people who were heckling him. He may not be a complete quarterback but he's a competitive athlete who hates to lose. He knows he let his team down and it makes him sick. He just has to figure out how to best apply his tremendous skill set. Those who are upset or offended at Vick flipping off the home crowd need to find better things to worry about.

The trick is for Vick to realize that his job isn't to take over the game with his athleticism. It's nice if he can use that ability to buy some time or convert the occasional first down, but a quarterback has to defer to the team. Vick needs to become a secondary play maker and use his ability to showcase the rest of the team. Running for a first down is great but scrambling in the pocket in the hopes of finding an open set of hands 25 yards down field is better. He also needs to develop more consistent touch on his passes and hit those receivers in stride so they can use their ability to make plays after the catch rather then exhaust that ability trying to bring the ball in.

Good coaches know how to frustrate Vick. They take away his options and dare him to take the game over on his own. If the defense is balanced the strategy keeps Vick and the Falcons out of the end zone. Vick will gain yards on the ground but the Falcons sputter in thered zone because they can't stretch the defense deep anymore. That's when the defensive backs can sit on routes and wait for Vick to throw a bad ball. Even though Vick has shown flashes of brilliance, the really good teams know how to rattle him.

The problem goes back to college. Virginia Tech is one of those programs that has to recruit creatively and Vick was attracted to Frank Beamer's team because he knew he would get a chance to start as a freshman and be permitted to make plays. Vick wanted to be a star and Beamer was willing to let him shine. Traditional football powers thought of using Vick as a running back or even grooming him to be a staring QB as a junior or senior. Beamer thought he could ride Michael Vick into championship contention but Vick has struggled with the concept of conforming to the NFL game. College often rewards raw talent; in the NFL quarterbacks make plays with their heads. By the way, Beamer hasn't exactly changed the way college football is played. Virginia Tech hasn't won many big games either. Hardly a coincidence.

The Atlanta Falcons are not in the Big East or ACC and the level of talent Vick is facing is much deeper than he ever witnessed in college. Defensive backs in the NFL are smart enough to know when the QB is still behind the line and athletic enough to bring the elusive Vick down when he does take to the open field. He still makes plays because he is a special athlete, but the pond he's swimming in is bigger, deeper and full of much larger fish. The proof is in the standings. When Vick finally realizes that he isn't bigger than the NFL the Falcons will be dangerous. Until then, fans should get comfortable with 8-8.

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