Trial and Error
A mauling by the Bears showed Falcons rookie Michael Vick just how much he has to learn
A lot happened to Falcons wunderkind Michael Vick on Sunday during the first extended playing time of his NFL career. Most of what happened was bad.
Facing the Bears in the Georgia Dome, the electric kid from Virginia Tech was under center for seven drives, four more than in the Falcons' first three games combined. Atlanta scored three points on those possessions. In 40 plays Vick was sacked six times, once on a hit as violent as any you'll ever see, when Chicago linebacker Rosevelt Colvin came in from the blind side. Vick was stripped twice, and only a penalty against the Bears saved him from a third fumble. One of those strips, which resulted in linebacker Brian Urlacher's game-clinching 90-yard touchdown return early in the fourth quarter, looked as if it would send Atlanta coach Dan Reeves into orbit.
Vick did some good things. He threw smoothly on the run and, with a few on-target bullets, reminded us how good he might someday be. His numbers looked all right—12 completions in 18 attempts for 186 yards with no interceptions—but he was nine of 12 in garbage time, and he repeatedly tried to do too much. Mama said there'd be halves like this, halves when a 10-0 deficit grows into a 31-3 blowout.
"Nothing like this ever happened to me," a remarkably composed Vick said as he stood in front of his locker. "Never at Virginia Tech. Never anywhere. It hurts."
The Falcons didn't plan to use Vick so much in the game. In fact, had starter Chris Chandler not suffered a concussion in the first half, Vick might not have gotten on the field after halftime. (He took four snaps in the first half.) Reeves's plan with his $49 million franchise quarterback is an excellent one: Every week have Vick perfect eight to 10 plays, and then use them in one or two drives during the game. In addition give him about a half-dozen plays to use in goal line and short-yardage situations so he can be inserted as a change-up from pocket passer Chandler. "Michael has to play to get better," Reeves said last Saturday. "He has to learn the offense gradually and get out on the field to put what he learns into action."
Chandler isn't crazy about the arrangement. "I'd be lying if I said I liked it," he said last week, "but I realize why Dan's doing it." However, he's one of the few who doesn't like it. Says Vick, "It's the best way to go about learning an offense, especially with all the formations and motion in the NFL."
Sunday's game showed how far Vick has to go but also offered glimpses of his multiple gifts. In the fourth quarter he leaped over Urlacher on a designed run out of the shotgun, gaining nine yards. Later he rolled left and hit wide-out Quentin McCord with a 26-yard strike.
As Reeves said, Vick simply needs to play. To succeed, though, he also needs to avoid getting down mentally when he fails. Foremost, Vick needs to learn when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em. Perfect example: Early fourth quarter, Bears up 17-0, Atlanta's ball, first-and-goal on the Chicago 3. The Falcons' last chance to make it a game. Vick sprinted left, looking, looking, looking—but everyone was covered. As Bears defensive end Phillip Daniels grabbed his legs, Vick cocked his arm, trying to make something out of nothing. Daniels jarred the ball loose. Urlacher gathered it in and ran for the easiest 90-yard touchdown he'll ever score.
Vick slowly walked to the sideline, his jersey askew, his shoulder pads hanging out. Reeves met him before he reached the bench, and as Reeves grabbed the shirt at the neckline and stretched it back over the pads, he reminded the quarterback, "Mike, you can't try to salvage every play. Throw it away. You had three downs to make a play, and you didn't use 'em."