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Mistaken as that assessment might be--"I'd have known he was just being smart with his body, and I don't know anyone in this locker room who'd have felt otherwise," says linebacker Keith Brooking, the Falcons' defensive leader--it shows how seriously Vick views his role. Teammates say he has become increasingly vocal since the arrival of the 42-year-old Mora, whose energy and intensity captivated Vick from the day the two met.
Vick has similarly taken to even-keeled offensive coordinator Gregg Knapp, whom Mora brought with him from San Francisco, a move that led to the popular belief that the Falcons would install the West Coast offense. "The verbiage is the same, but it is not the same offense," Mora insists, though some elements are clearly similar: a reliance on short, timing-based passes with quick progressions and a premium on accuracy. Call it the New South offense, and watch to see whether Vick, a career 52.4% passer, can improve his control while retaining his improvisational brilliance.
"Mike is always going to be Mike, but the great thing is, he doesn't have to go out and run for 150 yards anymore," says running back Warrick Dunn, who carried 19 times for 63 yards and two touchdowns against San Francisco. "Once we get this offense down to second nature, with all our weapons, it's going to be scary."
For inspiration Vick need only look to the nimble lefty he idolized as a teenager, former 49ers star Steve Young. "Don't start that talk about his lack of accuracy," cautions Young. "I'm telling you, accuracy comes with time, and with the teaching he's getting now, I see nothing but upside." Young's optimism is based on his own experience: After taking over as San Francisco's starter in 1991, he had a choppy transition period as coaches tried to tame his tendency to improvise. He didn't truly become a master at reading defenses until 1994, a season that ended with Young's throwing a record six touchdown passes in the Niners' Super Bowl XXIX blowout of the San Diego Chargers. The thing was, the future Hall of Famer was so talented that while learning on the fly he was able to win three consecutive passing titles and a league MVP by the end of the '93 season and lead the Niners to two NFC title games.
"Even when he was learning the offense, Steve could always go to the run, whether you wanted him to or not, and he just got better and better," says former 49ers coach Bill Walsh, who popularized the West Coast offense. " Vick can be the same way. If he gets comfortable in this offense, he can be one of the greatest to play the game."
Mindful of Vick's mobility, Mora and Knapp plan to feature plenty of rollout passes and other play-action throws in which the quarterback moves out of the pocket. Though he had his shaky moments on Sunday, getting sacked four times and twice recovering his own fumbles, Vick at times looked as sharp throwing the ball as he ever has.
On the first play of the second quarter Vick, facing third-and-eight from Atlanta's 10, fired a 16-yard pass between two defenders and into the chest of wideout Brian Finneran, who caught the ball in front of a third San Francisco player, cornerback Ahmed Plummer. Two plays later Vick rolled right as if to run, stopped abruptly, set his feet and whipped a 22-yard pass to tight end Alge Crumpler (six catches, 82 yards, one touchdown). The magic continued later in the second quarter as Vick, following a play fake to Dunn, rolled to his left and threw on the run to wideout Peerless Price (four catches, 62 yards) for a 20-yard gain, setting up Dunn's two-yard touchdown burst on the next play.
At that point San Francisco trailed 14--0, and the fans had already directed a smattering of boos at the Niners' struggling offense. A late rally led by quarterback Tim Rattay (18 for 31, 175 yards), combined with Vick's wobbly second half (he had just two completions to finish 13 of 22 for 163 yards), made the game far too close for Mora's liking, but the choked-up coach let go of his stress as Vick presented him with a game ball in the locker room.
It was a landmark victory, to be sure, but Vick did not view it as an anomaly. "All preseason long, people were saying we didn't even look like a .500 team," Vick said as he walked from the Falcons' locker room and out to the Candlestick parking lot. "Good. Let us sneak up on people. But I'll tell you this: With this team on my back, I can't ever see us being below .500."
The quarterback smiled faintly, but he definitely wasn't laughing.