Last Friday, Michael Vick signed a one-year deal with the Jets. He'll be 34 by the time the season begins. The following is excerpted from Deadspin's Big Book of Black Quarterbacks. This entry is written by Kyle Wagner.
There's this weird thing about the old Michael Vick highlights on YouTube, and elsewhere on the internet: Once you dig back into his Falcons heyday, the video is almost all in slow motion. The confluence of the NFL's totalitarian media licensing in the digital age, low quality source files, and dismaying schoolmarms scrubbing all Vick content from the web has left it oddly barren of full-speed video of the most exciting, baffling player of the last 15 years. In a way it's fitting, because Michael Vick didn't make sense at full speed.
Everything comes back to 4.25. Whatever else Michael Vick was—the first black quarterback taken first overall, or the first quarterback to rush for 1,000 yards, or the first to have a meme named after his clinic visits, or the man who organized a dogfighting ring that drowned, shot, electrocuted, and hanged dozens of animals—he'll always be the guy who outran the NFL and every principle of offense it had for a few years. But the sneaky important part of his legacy in football is the way the league caught back up.
Vick was never a bluntly effective quarterback. In more than a few years, his albatross passing outweighed whatever positives he produced on the run—the reductio ad absurdum coming in 2006, when he became the first quarterback to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season, but was so ineffectual throwing the ball that his DYAR, a cumulative metric of production, came out to 1, making him the Nolan Ryan of quarterbacks. (Peyton Manning had 2,490 DYAR this season, Nick Foles 1,072.) But his highlights were so impossible, so outside the parameters of terrestrial football, that, like Ryan, everyone started to look for The Next Vick before we fully understood whether the one we already had was actually effective. It's natural, in the evolution of the sport/NEXT vein, but it was the wrong question. What they should have been asking was, Just what the hell do you do with a Michael Vick?
The problem was that Vick began in essentially the tail end of the NFL's Mesozoic era. Denny Green and Mike Martz had begun nudging the NFL into the air, but Vick played for Dan Reeves, a stubborn old bastard who, like a proper football psychopath, once rushed back from open heart surgery inside of two weeks to return to the sideline. Reeves insisted on a run-heavy system, and tried to incorporate Vick's running the way he had with a young John Elway, and by his second season, 2002, it was working: Vick put up what was probably the best season of the first half of his career, throwing for 2,936 yards, 16 touchdowns, and eight interceptions, and running for 777 yards and another eight touchdowns. But Reeves was a disagreeable sonofabitch, often clashing with management, and in 2004 he'd be replaced by Jim Mora, Jr. and his intricate West Coast offense.
In his first year under Mora, Vick struggled, putting up total yardage numbers similar to those in his 2002 season, but doubling his interception and sack rates while converting just 27 percent of his third down attempts. He was bad. And worse, Mora never got him to buy into the system. He'd tell his former coach in a 2010 interview, "The [scouting report] DVDs used to pile up in my car." Mora struggled to adapt to Vick, too, as he oversimplified his offense in ways like having Vick only read one side (or quarter) of the field at a time, or trimming down route trees to the point of ineffectiveness.
The thing is, Vick was worth the headaches, because no one has ever been more physically suited to play quarterback. He could break an 80-yard run, or bomb a perfect 60-yard spiral on the move. He also threw insane interceptions, waved the ball around as if it were a hanky, and could crack a rib while tying his shoe, but the impossibility, the improvisational allegrissimo of a Mike Vick scramble, equalized games in ways that didn't always seem fair. How was it right that the Falcons could go three-and-out over and over on a series of overthrown passes and balls in the dirt, only to have Vick pull a 56-yard run and a bootleg sprint to the pylon for a score on the next two plays? In the clip below, a ridiculous highlight from Vick's playoff evisceration of the Packers at Lambeau, John Madden makes what was a pretty common observation about defending Vick: You can do everything right, but still be wrong. But the reason Vick was so fascinating was that the opposite was true too. He could do everything wrong, but still end up right. So what would happen if someone ever got him being right to begin with?
Vick came into the league in the afterglow of Cunningham and Slash, and Daunte Culpepper and Donovan McNabb were both established as real deal rookies. And other mobile quarterbacks, like John Elway and Steve Young (who ran the same 4.53 40 as Colin Kaepernick), had just wrapped up Hall of Fame careers. But there's a legitimate case to be made that the running quarterback was never really accepted as a design, and not a final resort, until Vick rearranged the calculus of what's possible, even if he never got there himself.
The lessons learned with Vick show up in how young, athletic quarterbacks are handled now. They aren't just crammed into a West Coast offense and instructed to only run if absolutely necessary, or tucked behind a run-heavy line and told to just make something happen. They're drafted into systems that accommodate them: think Russell Wilson in Seattle or Andrew Luck in Indianapolis, or, for a little while at least, Robert Griffin III in Washington. Jim Harbaugh's offense probably doesn't look the same without the Michael Vick era. Neither does Chip Kelly's, for that matter. The fundamental ways that football is conceptualized today—speed, misdirection, athleticism—can be found in the contrails that Vick left as he burned through the league.
It's a cautionary tale, a kaleidoscoping mess of missed opportunities—for Vick, of course, who never truly applied himself until after his bid in Leavenworth and ended up as a talented but undeniably lesser version of his best self, but also for the league, which needed a whole generation of quarterbacks to figure out just what to do with him. Imagine Vick running the pistol last year, taking advantage of play-action passes in ways he never could in those traditional shotgun sets from Atlanta. He'll latch on to some team this year, and maybe win a starting job, or maybe not. But for the guy who starred in the single coolest football commercial ever, and who lives on as a Madden demigod, it will always seem like there should have been more.
Michael Vick | 2001-2006, 2009-2013 | Atlanta Falcons, Philadelphia Eagles
Drafted, 1st round (1 overall) | 127 games (108 starts) | 21,489 yards passing | 128 passing TDs | 85 INTs |56.2 comp. % | 80.9 QB rating | 5,857 yards rushing | 36 rushing TDs | 91 fumbles
"With an awesome talent like Vick, the only concern will be how long it takes him to develop into a top-of-the-line, pure passer."—Mel Kiper, ESPN