In his fifth season Mike Vick is still going all-out, putting his body at risk. How long can he keep himself in one piece?
The noise in the Alamodome was deafening, surprisingly so, as the home-away-from-home Saints made their stand against the stronger Falcons in San Antonio on Sunday. With 14 seconds left in a game tied at 31, Atlanta faced third-and-three at the New Orleans 32. Falcons offensive coordinator Greg Knapp wanted to get the ball a couple of yards closer for kicker Todd Peterson to try a field goal, but Knapp also wanted a safe play. On the headset to quarterback Mike Vick, Knapp called a Warrick Dunn run up the gut. Vick thought, We'll see.
"I couldn't run that play," Vick said, smiling as he packed his rolling suitcase in the locker room after the game. " Saints had a Zero blitz on. Everyone's coming. The safeties were down, corners down, everyone crowding the line. I hand it off and we've got a blown-up play. They'd kill Warrick."
So Vick, after surveying the defense, took the snap, faked the handoff to a stunned Dunn (for whom nine other Falcons were blocking), put the ball on his hip and took off around left end. It was a mad dash to the first-down mark, Vick racing safety Josh Bullocks. Guess who won? "No one knew," said tight end Alge Crumpler of Vick's improvisation. "All of a sudden Warrick doesn't have the ball, and I'm looking over and thinking, There goes Superman." Vick's four-yard gallop gave Atlanta a first down with nine seconds left. After the Saints were flagged for two five-yard penalties, the second of which negated Peterson's errant 41-yard field goal attempt, the Falcons' kicker was true on a 36-yarder for a 34-31 victory.
"You get into a game, a game we really needed, and you do what you have to do to win," Vick said. "It's all I know. I've been playing that way since I was a kid in the backyard. That's me."
Playing that way has also caused Vick to miss 13 of the Falcon's last 38 games because of injuries. He could start playing it safe and last longer in the NFL, but he's not going to change his game. He's not going to hand off to Dunn if he thinks he's got a better chance to make the first down himself--even if he might get steamrollered on the play. Not with a game on the line.
There are flaws still to be worked out. Too many of Vick's passes sail high or zip low and outside; after an 11-for-23 performance on Sunday the fifth-year veteran has a career completion percentage of 53.7. And he doesn't yet exhaust his receiver progression on pass plays before tucking and running; after averaging 8.0 runs per game in 2003 and 8.0 in '04, he's averaging--you guessed it--8.0 rushes per game this season. Vick may have the quickest feet of any quarterback in the 86-year history of the league, but he's asking for trouble jitterbugging out of the pocket or diving for a first down. After missing the previous game with a sprained right knee, Vick aggravated the injury when he was hit by Saints cornerback Fred Thomas on a whirling-dervish scramble midway through the first quarter.
It's almost a guilty pleasure to watch Vick these days. Is he playing on borrowed time? Instead of playing at top form into his mid-30s, as Brett Favre has, will he have the shelf life of a running back, winding down at 30? And what of the Falcons, who are on the hook for $109.8 million in contractual obligations to Vick over the next nine years? What's the cringe factor in the front office whenever he ping-pongs through a defense? "It's not something that keeps me awake at night," Falcons general manager Rich McKay says, "but I do look forward to the day when Mike stays in the pocket more."
"This is my second year in this [West Coast] system, and I'm getting it, and I'll get better," Vick said. "But I don't think I'm hit that much. A running back gets hit a lot more than I do. I'm hardly ever sore in the morning after a game. I got hit today, but I feel great right now. I know I can do this seven, eight more years."