An hour after the biggest win of his life, Michael Vick stood outside Lambeau Field late last Saturday night, dressed only in a blue suit and matching blue shirt. Snow swirled around his head, and some flakes nested in his closely cropped hair as he soaked in the Atlanta Falcons' historic 27-7 victory over the Green Bay Packers. He didn't look cold. Just cool. "This game defines why the Falcons drafted me," the 22-year-old quarterback said happily. "I can't help it. I'm just so proud of myself."
Vick had plenty of help from his friends in handing Green Bay its first home playoff loss in the 82-year history of the franchise. Running back Warrick Dunn had 104 rushing and receiving yards combined, and backup T.J. Duckett broke loose several times, including a six-yard touchdown run up the middle. The offense controlled the clock for 36 minutes and did not commit a turnover. The defense forced five turnovers, including three by Brett Favre, who threw his second interception of the day and fumbled once while desperately trying to rally the Packers from a 24-0 half-time deficit. Linebacker Mark Simoneau blocked a punt deep in Green Bay territory, and linebacker Artie Ulmer recovered the ball and rolled one yard for a touchdown.
Vick's numbers weren't spectacular: 13-of-25 passing for 117 yards and one touchdown, plus 10 rushes for 64 yards. But this game was not about stats, it was about Vick's commanding presence. He did what he wanted when he wanted, most spectacularly late in the first half, on a third-and-three play at the Packers' 39. Vick rolled to the left and was about to be sacked for a huge loss, but he escaped the clutches of Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila near the sideline, reversed field and left four more Green Bay players in his wake for an 11-yard gain.
Thereafter, whenever the Packers showed signs of life, Vick responded. For example, with the crowd roused after Green Bay had cut the lead to 24-7 midway through the third quarter, Vick took the snap on third-and-three at the Atlanta 40, patiently looked for a receiver, then saw a seam up the middle and took off. Strong safety Marques Anderson appeared to be in position to stop Vick short of a first down, but the quarterback shifted into another gear and ran for 22 yards. Eight plays later Jay Feeley closed out the scoring by kicking a 23-yard field goal, and the Falcons were headed for this Saturday's NFC divisional playoff game against the Eagles in Philadelphia.
At midfield after the game Favre told Vick, "I'm proud of you. You're going to be a superstar in this league."
He already is. This game was a testament to how quickly a quarterback can turn around a team, an impact the Falcons were sure Vick would have when they began exploring a trade for the first pick in the 2001 draft. It was a desperate time in Atlanta: The Falcons had gone 5-11 and 4-12 after their 1998 Super Bowl season, which was looking more and more like a fluke; season-ticket sales had dropped to 29,000; and the team was on the block. Atlanta held the fifth pick, and as team scouts prepared for the draft, they became increasingly excited about the 20-year-old Vick, a run-first quarterback who'd played only two seasons at Virginia Tech. But was that excitement justified? Vick may have been an electric player, with 4.3 speed in the 40 and a cannon for a left arm, but skeptics wondered how he'd handle the transition to the NFL. After all, they pointed out, he had thrown the ball only 313 times in college, while running with it 212 times.
The Falcons' supervisor of college scouting, Mike Hagen, wondered too—until he saw Vick's individual workout for NFL teams a couple of weeks before the draft. Vick threw for about an hour, "and I bet the ball hit the ground three or four times," Hagen recalled last Saturday. "We'd heard about how he wasn't accurate enough [ Vick was a middling 56.5% passer in college], but he wore out three receivers that day. All he did was put the ball on the money."
The San Diego Chargers owned the first pick in the draft but gave it up in return for Atlanta's first-and third-round selections in 2001, a second-rounder in 2002 and wideout Tim Dwight. "Nobody had to convince us it was a good deal," cornerback Ray Buchanan said after last Saturday night's victory. "I thought it was going to be the turning point for this organization. We'd been in turmoil since the Super Bowl. I had no idea it would turn around this fast. But a night like tonight happens only because we were bold and got a great player like Michael to lead us."
Vick still has to work on his accuracy; his 54.9% completion rate this year was at least five points shy of where he wanted it to be. He still has to strike a balance between scrambling and staying in the pocket. "I never want to be known as just a running quarterback," he says. "People don't realize this, but to me, it's more beautiful for a quarterback to take his seven-step drop and hit a receiver on a 17-yard out route. That's the way the game should be played, and that's how great quarterbacks define themselves. There's a part of me that always says, Sit back and let things happen. Use your arm and brain, not just your legs."
But Vick excelled in other areas in his first full season as a starter, such as his flawless handling of the silent snap count in loud environs like Lambeau Field. "I haven't had a false start or illegal procedure using the silent count all season," Vick says. "Last year I had no idea what I was doing with it." Atlanta used the silent count on about 80% of its snaps against the Packers and will likely have to rely on it again this weekend at rowdy Veterans Stadium.