Risky Business

Snakebitten San Diego will likely cast its lot with Michael Vick, who's making a perilous leap from college sophomore to No. 1 pick in the NFL draft.
Snakebitten San Diego will likely cast its lot with Michael Vick, who's making a perilous leap from college sophomore to No. 1 pick in the NFL draft.
April 22, 2001

Over the past month SI asked five of pro football's most respected offensive tacticians to watch a videotape of Michael Vick and analyze the game of the electrifying Virginia Tech quarterback. When you're scrutinizing a raw 20-year-old who played only 22 college games, there is plenty to pick apart. That's why the San Diego Chargers, who hold the first selection in the two-day draft that kicks off on Saturday, have a potentially franchise-haunting decision to make just three years after drafting quarterback Ryan Leaf, a colossal first-round flop who's still causing them salary-cap nightmares.

On the tape were all of Vick's snaps from three victories last season--one of his better passing games, against Clemson in the Gator Bowl; one of his typical all-around performances, against Virginia; and one game in which he struggled, against Boston College. SI's expert panel consisted of Baltimore Ravens director of pro personnel and former NFL quarterback James Harris, Chargers coach Mike Riley, CBS analyst and former New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms, former San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh and recently retired Niners quarterback Steve Young. While the experts found much to like about Vick, they did find three major flaws in the underdeveloped passer's game:

• Although the 6-foot, 215-pound Vick has an especially strong arm, he is too often inaccurate. After watching him miss one wide-open receiver after another on the tape, Simms, the former Super Bowl MVP, said, "It doesn't seem like he had one easy completion in those three games."

• Overly eager to run with the ball, Vick repeatedly exposes himself to injury. "You can't get hit this much," said Riley, after seeing Vick get nailed so hard by three Virginia defenders that his helmet flew off. "You won't last."

• If his primary receiver is covered, Vick is too quick to abandon the pass and take off. "There's no progression through his reads," Walsh said after seeing about half the tape. "That'll take extensive training to fix."

Before the 1998 draft Walsh said he liked Michigan quarterback Brian Griese--the 91st selection that year--over Leaf, who went No. 2 after Peyton Manning. Last week Griese re-signed with the Denver Broncos for $39 million over six years; Leaf is trying to start over as a Tampa Bay Buccaneers backup. This time Walsh would take Purdue's Drew Brees, 22, over Vick, who led Virginia Tech to 20 victories in his 22 starts. "Vick is not ready to be an NFL quarterback," Walsh says. "He has more potential than Brees, but I don't see how he'll be able to play regularly until his third year. I hope those coaches in San Diego are secure in their jobs. They'll need to be to see this kid through."

Still, the Chargers have almost no choice but to take Vick. San Diego, which signed 38-year-old free agent Doug Flutie to be its starter next fall, badly needs a quarterback for the long term, and Vick has the best upside of any passer in this draft. What's more, with the draft less than a week away, San Diego had not received a single trade offer for the top pick, so the club has opened contract negotiations with Vick. What's inhibiting the trade market is the fact that, after Vick, no one in the draft has much sizzle. The second player picked could be Gerard Warren, a defensive tackle from Florida who, arguably, would be the most unheralded No. 2 of all time. On the other hand the team that gets Vick might someday strike it rich. "He could well become one of the greatest playmakers in NFL history," says Harris.

"You don't want to be the Portland Trail Blazers, who passed up Michael Jordan to take Sam Bowie," Riley says. In this draft there isn't even a Sam Bowie to cloud the issue. After Vick there are just a bunch of Mel Turpins.

"The real question you have to ask yourself," says Simms, "is whether any person in this draft can change your franchise. There's one: Michael Vick."

At the height of his career Young was as close to a model for what Vick might become as the NFL has produced. "This brings back memories," Young said wistfully as he watched the tape last week between charity appearances at Disney World. "It's so much fun to watch. I feel like I've seen all these plays before." That's because Young—the best combination of a winner, an efficient passer and a running quarterback ever to play in the league—made many such plays himself. If Vick becomes as poised and polished as Young was, the Chargers will be set for a generation.

No matter what the coaches tell him, Vick will figure he can play the same way in the NFL as he did in college.
Bill Walsh

Here's how the panel judged Vick in vital quarterback categories:

• Arm. Even while on the move Vick can throw the ball 50 yards with a flick of his left wrist. "His arm's unquestionably good enough," says Simms, who, along with Young, noted that Vick's front leg was too stiff when he threw, causing his passes to sail. Also, his spiral is not always tight, and his touch on intermediate throws is inconsistent. "He seems to have one speed--hard," says Walsh. Still, they all say, Vick has an excellent throwing motion.

• Accuracy. In two seasons with the Hokies, Vick completed 56.1% of his throws, which is a lower percentage than 30 NFL quarterbacks who threw at least 175 passes had last season. Vick seems to have particular trouble with timing on crossing routes and with hitting the deep receiver. "I like guys who can manipulate defenses," Young says of Vick's ability to keep a defense on its heels with the threat of a run. "But accuracy is a huge issue, and it looks like that's something Michael has to work on."

• Mobility. Virginia Tech coaches say Vick has been clocked at 4.3 seconds or less in the 40. Young watched Vick pirouette to escape three Virginia rushers, sprint to his left and launch a 23-yard pass to running back Lee Suggs. "Wow," Young said, chuckling. When he saw Vick make four Boston College defensive backs miss on his way to an 82-yard touchdown run--Vick completed only 5 of 17 passes for 61 yards that day, but he ran for 210--Young said, "That's incredible. I mean, [what quarterback] can do that? Nobody." Walsh issued this warning: "Ultimately, running like this in the NFL would be a negative. It won't help [deter him] when he makes electrifying plays with his feet in the preseason and drives the fans crazy. No matter what the coaches tell him, he'll figure he can play the same way in the NFL that he did in college."

• Toughness. Vick missed one game and most of another with a sprained ankle last season but looked plenty tough against Virginia--16 for 23, 202 yards and one touchdown passing; 116 yards and three touchdowns rushing--three weeks after suffering the injury. "Look at those hits he's taking," Simms marveled after a Cavalier leveled Vick. "Big hit after big hit." Vick also wasn't afraid to hang in and take the big hit against a Clemson defense that blitzed time and again. He completed 10 of 18 passes for 205 yards and a touchdown with only one interception in that game.

• Smarts. Hokies coaches told the Chargers that Vick was a quick learner, and the San Diego staff got the same impression after three chalk talks with him. "He's got eyes in the back of his head," Harris says of Vick's field presence. "He's a magician."

That leaves one question for the Chargers to investigate: What about Vick's personality, work ethic and desire? San Diego's failure to get an accurate reading of Leaf's character in 1998 proved devastating. Bobby Beathard, the team's general manager at the time, bought Washington State coach Mike Price's assurances that Leaf's checkered off-field history in college was a boys-will-be-boys thing. Leaf turned out to be disturbingly immature. This time Chargers quarterbacks coach Mike Johnson has spent more than two weeks on the Blacksburg campus, interviewing Vick and his coaches and teammates. "Mike's been there so much the whole athletic department calls him by his first name," Riley says. "He swears by Michael."

"You never know, because the agents always have the rookies so polished and ready to talk to the pro scouts and coaches," says Norv Turner, San Diego's new offensive coordinator, who made his reputation in the NFL by developing Troy Aikman into a Super Bowl champion. "But all the indications are that Michael is highly competitive and that all he wants to do is win. The key for him will be to channel that competitiveness into preparing well every day to be great. That was a big key for Steve Young when he sat behind Joe Montana."

Of course, Vick is miles from where Young was when he began his career with the 49ers in 1987. Vick is 20; by the time Young arrived in San Francisco he was 25. Vick has thrown 360 passes since high school; Young had thrown 1,968 passes--907 as a three-year starter at Brigham Young, 560 in two seasons with the USFL's Los Angeles Express and 501 in two seasons with the Bucs. As a redshirt freshman, Vick was an understudy to undistinguished passer Al Clark; as a freshman at BYU, Young was an understudy to NCAA record-setter Jim McMahon. Vick's quarterback coach and offensive coordinator was little-known Rickey Bustle; Young's position or head coaches included Mike Holmgren at BYU, Hall of Famer Sid Gillman with the Express and respected coordinator Jimmy Raye with the Bucs.

Young also benefited from a continuity in coaching philosophy. Walsh, Holmgren and Mike Shanahan directed him in the West Coast offense his first nine years in San Francisco. Vick will need that kind of stability, but Riley is coming off a 1-15 season that almost got him fired. Further, with new general manager John Butler calling the shots, Riley figures to be on the hot seat this year. (Leaf had three coaches--Kevin Gilbride, June Jones and Riley--in his first eight months with San Diego.)

So what is Young's advice to Vick?

"You have to become an artist to be a great quarterback in the NFL," he says, "and with Michael, there's obviously a tremendous amount to work with. I think NFL quarterbacks go through three stages. Stage one is, I'm in the NFL and I've got to make something happen. You figure, Why throw the ball five yards when I know I can make it myself? The next stage is learning when to take hits in the pocket, when to give up on plays. When you do run, you get what you can and get out of bounds. At stage three you realize the real truth about playing quarterback: You can't win a championship keeping the ball in your hands. Too many turnovers. Too many injuries. Now, your first thought on every play becomes, How do I get the ball to the talent? Even with his great gifts, Michael will learn--at least this is what I'd tell him--that the only way to win consistently is to spread the ball around."

With the exception of Walsh--he likes Vick's playmaking ability under pressure and his arm strength but figures it will take him too long to learn how to play quarterback in the NFL to warrant being the first pick--the panel thought Vick was worth the Chargers' risk. Of course, the opinion that matters most is Riley's. "The risk involved in making another big investment at quarterback is real," he says, "but we don't want to be scared away by it. We see Michael Vick and see he's special. Question is, can he transfer that to the NFL? We think so."

Barring a startling, last-minute trade opportunity, there is no alternative.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)