Much has changed for Michael Vick since he spent his rookie year as an under-confident understudy to veteran quarterback Chris Chandler. For one, Atlanta waived Chandler, and Vick is now the starter. Overwhelmed at times last year by the complex play-calling demanded by coach Dan Reeves's system, Vick is far more comfortable in the huddle now that Reeves has streamlined the playbook's language. Where Vick often hurried through his reads last year, he has slowed his drop back, letting plays develop and flashing a velvety touch when necessary. He even worked with team officials to better handle the media and fan crush he faces as one of the NFL's most dynamic quarterback prospects.
For all of Vick's on-field improvement and newfound peace, however, he's still vexingly inscrutable to his teammates. "He's like a 1918 movie: lots of action, but the dialogue's definitely limited. He hasn't said but four words all camp," joked offensive tackle Bob Whitfield over a mid-August training-camp meal, as a half-dozen teammates nodded in agreement. "But he's obviously more comfortable this year. He relaxed in the pocket, and he's not hurrying everything." As Vick approached with his dinner, Whitfield couldn't resist bellowing, "And now he calls the plays right, too!"
Vick sees such good-natured barbs as evidence that his teammates regard him as their leader. Now, he says, his challenge is to be just that. "Last year I had to constantly remind myself that I was good enough to play at this level," he says. "I always knew I had the physical ability to perform, but my confidence wasn't where it needed to be. I knew that I had to work the entire off-season to prepare. I studied my playbook every day, even if it meant locking myself in my bedroom when Mom came to visit. I watched all my plays from last year. It's what I had to do."
What he saw bothered him: too many rushed throws and broken plays. He struggled to read, and consequently to escape, blitzes; he was sacked 23 times in 113 drop backs, a staggering average of one sack every 4.9 times he intended to throw. When he did pass, he made life troublesome for his receivers, firing panicked, off-target throws that too often fell to the ground or forced his receivers to make difficult body catches—or sprain their fingers trying. And those complex play-calls, with each receiver's route described in detail, added to his anxiety. "I couldn't even get us out of the huddle," Vick says. "It was frustrating."
But in Atlanta's penultimate game, against Miami, he says, "Everything clicked." Replacing an injured Chandler, Vick nearly led Atlanta to the upset, finishing the game 11 of 20 with 214 yards, with five rushes for 63 yards in a 21-14 loss. Then in the season finale, against the Rams, Vick started and accounted for 234 of the Falcons' 255 total yards. "Remember, Mike was 21 years old when he got here," says quarterbacks coach Jack Burns. "Of course it was tough at first, but understanding any pro system takes a while. He learned that nothing's easy but that if he works hard, he'll be great."
Vick's confidence will continue to rise only if the Falcons' running game rights itself. The team aggressively addressed the need for improvement, signing speedy free agent Warrick Dunn to a six-year, $24 million contract and drafting powerful Michigan State tailback T.J. Duckett. At wideout the Falcons added free agent Willie Jackson, who helped Saints quarterback (and Vick's cousin) Aaron Brooks through growing pains over the last two years.
Concerns about Vick are small compared with those regarding the NFL's second-worst defense of 2001. But that should improve in new coordinator Wade Phillips's 3-4 scheme. The speedy front seven will benefit from the change, and former Rams free safety Keith Lyle will join corners Ray Buchanan and Ashley Ambrose to steady a shaky secondary.
In Vick the Falcons believe they have their long-sought cornerstone, strong and silent. "We'll go where Mike takes us, which is fine, because he's so very dangerous," says Buchanan. "Things feel different with him. It's his time now. He knows what he's doing, and that's all we ask."
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]