All eyes on Vick as high-flying Eagles visit Atlanta
There are times in a life, and in football, when a person is ready to do things differently. The Patriots got rebel-without-a-cause Albert Haynesworth at the right time this year; whether he ends up a great player, the one thing we do know is he's working at it, in part because he feels he's finally taking orders from a smart coach.
That's what happened with Michael Vick 25 months ago, when he signed with the Philadelphia Eagles and began to reshape his football career. And make no mistake about it: The Michael Vick who will take the field Sunday has his roots on the Nova Care practice field across Broad Street from where the Eagles play.
I'll get into the football part of this passion play -- not the passion of Vick going back to Atlanta as an Eagle. "That's Matt Ryan's house,'' Vick said of the Georgia Dome this week. "I'm just a visitor.'' True, but my sense is he'll have lots of support in the house Sunday night.
Vick played some Wildcat quarterback in the Eagles' 2009 rout of the Falcons at the Dome, throwing for one touchdown and running for another. But that was an appetizer. Sunday night, he comes into the Georgia Dome as the leader of a legit Super Bowl contender, not the third-string quarterback still trying to get his feet wet in a new offense.
There's a man who's helped make the current Vick happen more than anyone. When I talk to Andy Reid about Vick, he raves about the job offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg has done. When I talk to Vick, he credits Reid and Mornhinweg. Now, Mornhinweg has been largely invisible since the disastrous 5-27 run as coach of the Lions in 2001 and '02, and you can't write his bio without that ugliness sticking out. Who can forget kicking off in overtime and not getting the ball back? But if the Eagles go as far as they think they can, there's going to be plenty of credit, and deservedly so, for Mornhinweg and the job he's done with Vick.
The story starts with Reid going to Mornhinweg when he was a free agent after getting out of prison in the summer of 2009. The book on Vick at the time, in many NFL circles, was that he'd come back to the NFL as a trick pony. Maybe he'd be a starting quarterback somewhere, or maybe he'd become a professional Wildcat quarterback -- the kind of run/pass option player the Dolphins made out of Ronnie Brown in 2008. Only with a great arm. But Mornhinweg said to Reid: "I think Michael can be a good fit, and if he does it in a certain way, I think he can be a Steve Young kind of player.''
One problem. Young, with the 49ers, was a 65.8-percent passer. Vick, with the Falcons, was exactly 12 percentage points lower -- 53.8 percent. Quite a stretch.
"The first time I met with Michael after he signed,'' Mornhinweg told me Thursday, "we had a short, concise talk. He said two things -- he wanted to do whatever he could to help our football team, and he wanted to learn the quarterback position.' Once a guy tells you that, you know he's going to be good to coach.
"So I put a plan into place. We'd work 30 minutes before practice and 30 to 40 minutes after practice. He'd do conditioning, and we'd mix in making quarterback plays as part of it. Ten throws with the right footwork, throwing the ball into a net with targets downfield. Then a burst of anaerobic conditioning, maybe making running-back-type movements. Then 10 more throws, when he's fatigued. One of the great ways to teach proper mechanics of the quarterback position is to do it when you're tired. It really forces you to pay attention and work hard.
"The key is, day after day, he wanted it badly. He was so determined to make it work, and to make it work quickly. We saw eye to eye from day one, because he put in the work. Lots of times coaches get a lot of credit, but in this case, I can tell you it's on Mike. Ultimately, Michael had to do it the right way, and he has, and he's the one who deserves the credit. Great talent without hard work means you put a cap on your ability. Great talent with the work -- that's when you become a great player.''
Vick's made progress, as these numbers comparing his starting days in Atlanta with his starting days in Philadelphia:
Now, one thing to keep in mind: He slumped late last season with his accuracy, and he was only 14 of 32 in his first game this year. That bears watching. But Mornhinweg believes there's no reason to believe his accuracy will stay down. He's doing nothing different now than he was when he took over the starting job last season.
Mornhinweg thinks Vick's peripheral vision has helped him see the whole field better, and to not take off at the first sign of a rush. Studying has helped too. The coaches see Vick in the office every Tuesday, and Monday and Tuesday after a win -- when the players are often off both days. This week? Nothing different ... except one little chat with his offensive coordinator.
"I told him, 'I know you're going back there, but all the hoopla, that's for the offseason.' That's it. I'm sure it'll be emotional. I'm sure he'll be able to handle it.''
How Vick does will go a long toward determining if the Eagles start 2-0 ... and if he can put his former team in a world of September hurt.
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