Trial and Error
A mauling by the Bears showed Falcons rookie Michael Vick just
how much he has to learn
A lot happened to Falcons wunderkind Michael Vick on Sunday
during the first extended playing time of his NFL career. Most
of what happened was bad.
Facing the Bears in the Georgia Dome, the electric kid from
Virginia Tech was under center for seven drives, four more than
in the Falcons' first three games combined. Atlanta scored three
points on those possessions. In 40 plays Vick was sacked six
times, once on a hit as violent as any you'll ever see, when
Chicago linebacker Rosevelt Colvin came in from the blind side.
Vick was stripped twice, and only a penalty against the Bears
saved him from a third fumble. One of those strips, which
resulted in linebacker Brian Urlacher's game-clinching 90-yard
touchdown return early in the fourth quarter, looked as if it
would send Atlanta coach Dan Reeves into orbit.
Vick did some good things. He threw smoothly on the run and, with
a few on-target bullets, reminded us how good he might someday
be. His numbers looked all right--12 completions in 18 attempts
for 186 yards with no interceptions--but he was nine of 12 in
garbage time, and he repeatedly tried to do too much. Mama said
there'd be halves like this, halves when a 10-0 deficit grows
into a 31-3 blowout.
"Nothing like this ever happened to me," a remarkably composed
Vick said as he stood in front of his locker. "Never at Virginia
Tech. Never anywhere. It hurts."
The Falcons didn't plan to use Vick so much in the game. In
fact, had starter Chris Chandler not suffered a concussion in
the first half, Vick might not have gotten on the field after
halftime. (He took four snaps in the first half.) Reeves's plan
with his $49 million franchise quarterback is an excellent one:
Every week have Vick perfect eight to 10 plays, and then use
them in one or two drives during the game. In addition give him
about a half-dozen plays to use in goal line and short-yardage
situations so he can be inserted as a changeup from pocket
passer Chandler. "Michael has to play to get better," Reeves
said last Saturday. "He has to learn the offense gradually and
get out on the field to put what he learns into action."
Chandler isn't crazy about the arrangement. "I'd be lying if I
said I liked it," he said last week, "but I realize why Dan's
doing it." However, he's one of the few who doesn't like it. Says
Vick, "It's the best way to go about learning an offense,
especially with all the formations and motion in the NFL."
Sunday's game showed how far Vick has to go but also offered
glimpses of his multiple gifts. In the fourth quarter he leaped
over Urlacher on a designed run out of the shotgun, gaining nine
yards. Later he rolled left and hit wideout Quentin McCord with a
As Reeves said, Vick simply needs to play. To succeed, though,
he also needs to avoid getting down mentally when he fails.
Foremost, Vick needs to learn when to hold 'em and when to fold
'em. Perfect example: Early fourth quarter, Bears up 17-0,
Atlanta's ball, first-and-goal on the Chicago 3. The Falcons'
last chance to make it a game. Vick sprinted left, looking,
looking, looking--but everyone was covered. As Bears defensive
end Phillip Daniels grabbed his legs, Vick cocked his arm,
trying to make something out of nothing. Daniels jarred the ball
loose. Urlacher gathered it in and ran for the easiest 90-yard
touchdown he'll ever score.
Vick slowly walked to the sideline, his jersey askew, his
shoulder pads hanging out. Reeves met him before he reached the
bench, and as Reeves grabbed the shirt at the neckline and
stretched it back over the pads, he reminded the quarterback,
"Mike, you can't try to salvage every play. Throw it away. You
had three downs to make a play, and you didn't use 'em."
That was the lesson on this trying day. "I also learned you've
got to take care of the ball in the red zone or you won't be a
good player," Vick said. "I made some mistakes today. It's tough
to take right now, but that's what I'm here for. I have to keep
my spirits up, pray tonight, come back tomorrow and get better."
For 20 minutes Vick talked like this. When almost everyone was
gone, he turned toward his locker, stretched and shook hands with
a well-wisher. "I'm going to be all right," he said. Then he
winked. "Trust me."
Green Bay's Sack Specialist
Kabeer Making a Name for Himself
Last week SI asked players around the league: "Do you know who
Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila is?"
"Never heard of him," said Jaguars linebacker Kevin Hardy.
"Who does he play for?" asked Patriots cornerback Ty Law.
"Maybe some guy in Pakistan's government?" said Steelers
defensive end Aaron Smith.
The man with the impossible name (ka-BEER BA-jah BEE-ah-MIL-ah)
is the second-year defensive end with the Packers who leads the
NFL in sacks with nine after four games, including three on
Sunday against Tampa Bay. The son of Nigerian parents who raised
seven children on the mean streets of south central Los Angeles,
Gbaja-Biamila was determined not to let his surroundings defeat
him. "I called our house the jail because my father wouldn't let
us out except to go to school or to school events," he says. His
parents also made him believe in himself and in his ability to
achieve whatever he put his mind to.
The 6'5", 252-pound Gbaja-Biamila, San Diego State's alltime sack
leader, came to Green Bay in the fifth round of the 2000 draft as
a speed rusher. After an undistinguished, 1 1/2-sack rookie
season, he watched as Green Bay took a similarly undersized
player, Jamal Reynolds of Florida State, in the first round last
April to play the elephant end, the speed rusher in defensive
coordinator Ed Donatell's scheme. However, Gbaja-Biamila
outperformed Reynolds this summer and has played the elephant in
all obvious passing downs. One amazing thing about Gbaja-Biamila
is that he leads the league in sacks despite being on the field
for only 47% of Green Bay's defensive plays.
Although he's short on name recognition, Gbaja-Biamila is getting
noticed on the field, where he's starting to get double-teamed.
"It's a sign of respect," he says. "Eventually I will find ways
to defeat that. I have to."
League May Throw Networks a Life Raft
With the poor economic climate forcing the four networks that
carry games into early-season cost-cutting, the league will
consider some form of relief. "We're not bleeding," one network
vice president said last week. "We're hemorrhaging." Fox, for
instance, has dropped the popular yellow first-down line, in an
effort to save $1 million, and is having lead analyst John Madden
do interviews for the pregame show to cut down on reporters'
travel expenses. The cost of the 59 ad spots per game is down
about 10% from 2000 levels and, sources say, some are going for
The league has an option to reopen negotiations on its TV
contracts after the 2002 season, but it doesn't want the
networks awash in red ink. "We as a league have to take a
serious look at that, as far as how we try to restructure the
contract," says Broncos owner Pat Bowlen, a member of the
broadcast committee. One possibility: Allowing more on-screen
sponsorships of in-game enhancements, like the first-down stripe.
Giants' New Punter
Rookie Puts Best Foot Forward
Growing up in Atlanta, Rodney Williams would watch the
Monday-night game each week with his father. One night, when
Reggie Roby was punting for the Dolphins, Syggred Williams, who
is African-American, said to his son, "Watch this guy. You may
never see [a black punter] again in the NFL."
"I know what he meant," says Rodney, who in his first season with
the Giants leads the league in net punting with a 42.1-yard
average. "It's not a very glamorous position. When I played
football with my friends, we wanted to be Jerry Rice or Joe
Montana. Nobody ever said, 'I want to be Ray Guy.'"
After badly spraining his left ankle before his junior year in
high school, Williams, a onetime soccer goaltender with a strong
leg, didn't have a choice: He could either punt for the football
team or not play at all. He went on to punt for four years at
Georgia Tech and, amid failed trials with the Rams in 1999 and
the Redskins in 2000, spent two seasons in NFL Europe before
catching on with the Giants. In his NFL debut, against the
Broncos on Sept. 10, he averaged 55.1 yards on eight kicks,
including a club-record 90-yarder.
Williams has been vital to the Giants because of his ability to
drop unreturnable long punts on opponents, negating runbacks for
a team that must play field-position football to win. He bailed
out the Giants twice in the first quarter against the Saints on
Sept. 30. From the New York 18 his 51-yard punt, with no return,
backed up the Saints to their 31. Kicking out of the end zone on
his next punt, he boomed a 63-yarder, again with no return. With
the Giants clinging to a seven-point fourth-quarter lead over the
Redskins on Sunday, Williams hit a 59-yarder that coupled with a
15-yard penalty backed Washington up to its 28.
Williams was lucky even to be around for that game. Before the
Giants' 13-3 win in Kansas City on Sept. 23, he had rarely worn
a seat belt while driving. Before that game he got a good
talking-to from Edith Morgan, the mother of Chiefs linebacker
Derrick Thomas, who died of complications from a January 2000
car accident in which he wasn't wearing a seat belt. Two days
later Williams rolled his Range Rover on the New Jersey Turnpike
near Giants Stadium, and the SUV came to a rest upside down. He
walked away with a cut on his tongue. A police officer told
Williams he was surprised that anyone had survived the wreck. "I
was wearing my seat belt because of Derrick's mom, and I'm
positive I survived only because of the seat belt," Williams
says. "It only validates my thought that I'm here to do
My Two Cents
Bus's Bandwagon Just Too Small
1. Aside from the Jets' Curtis Martin, Jerome Bettis, who on
Sunday became the 14th player to surpass the 10,000-yard rushing
mark with a 153-yard effort during the Steelers' 16-7 win over
the Bengals, is the most underappreciated back of his day.
Consider that Bettis, running behind a lesser line than the
Cowboys' Emmitt Smith, has averaged 1,351 yards a season in
five-plus years in Pittsburgh, only 16 yards fewer than Smith has
in 11-plus years in Dallas.
2. I don't care what kind of pressure Mike Holmgren is feeling in
Seattle. He should resist the temptation to bench Matt Hasselbeck
for the NFL-tested Trent Dilfer. Before this season Hasselbeck
had 29 pass attempts, and you have to fail at quarterback before
you can succeed. We know what Dilfer's ceiling is. We don't yet
know about Hasselbeck's.
Send your pro football questions for Peter King's mailbag and
read more from Paul Zimmerman at cnnsi.com/football.
the football Beat
Chargers quarterback Doug Flutie versus the Patriots and their
"I'm the local boy," says Flutie, who loves Massachusetts and
knows his former neighbors feel the same way about him. "I'm one
of them." He returns to New England piloting the 3-1 Chargers in
a venue, Foxboro Stadium, where he has lost but once in eight NFL
starts. "There's been a connection there for 20 years, going back
to Boston College and continuing because I played for the
Patriots," he says. Flutie's most memorable Foxboro moment: After
being dealt from Chicago to New England in 1987, he started
against the fearsome Bears' defense on Oct. 30, 1988. His first
pass was an 80-yard touchdown to wideout Irving Fryar. He threw
for three more scores in a 30-7 Patriots win. "I loved looking
across the field and seeing Coach Ditka get on the Chicago
quarterbacks," Flutie recalls.
With San Francisco quarterback Jeff Garcia (left)
SI: Overcoming stereotypes.
Garcia: At 6'1" and 190 pounds, I've been labeled as a small
quarterback with a weak arm ever since I came out of San Jose
State [in 1994]. I had to go to Canada because of it. I think
I've proved that my arm's good enough to make every throw in the
SI: Canadian Football League.
Garcia: I wouldn't be the player I am today without the five
years I spent in Calgary. I remember in '95 when Doug [Flutie]
hurt his elbow and I had to play against Edmonton. Packed house
in Calgary, 37,000 people who had no idea who I was. I threw for
546 yards and six touchdowns.
SI: Best asset.
Garcia: The ability to throw on the run.
SI: Joe Montana.
Garcia: The greatest quarterback ever to play the game.
SI: Steve Young.
Garcia: Showed that a great athlete can be a great quarterback.
SI: Jerry Rice.
Garcia: In college I was at a bar one night and Jerry was in
there. I was a sophomore. I guess I was feeling a bit confident.
So I went up to him and said, "Someday I'm going to be throwing
passes to you." He was like, O.K., whatever.
SI: Football goal.
Garcia: Winning a sixth ring for the 49ers.
Oct. 14, 1945: Chicago ends the NFL's longest losing
Think it's hopeless to be a Cardinals fan? You should have seen
how bad things got for the franchise during the war years. The
Chicago Cardinals went almost three full seasons--29
games--between NFL victories. (Chicago and the Pittsburgh
Steelers combined teams in 1944 because of the number of players
who were serving in the armed forces, but their 0-10 record
isn't included in what is recognized as a 19-game skid.) The
Cardinals finally ended their slide by beating the Bears 16-7 at
Wrigley Field. How rough did things get for the Cardinals? In
1943 end Clint Wager missed the ball while working on his
punting in practice and somehow kneed himself in the head. He
suffered a fractured skull.
Before the season, Broncos wideout Rod Smith and cornerback
Deltha O'Neal made a deal: Smith would pay $100 for each O'Neal
interception; O'Neal would pay $100 for each Smith touchdown
catch. With Smith, the NFL's leading receiver, putting up huge
numbers, O'Neal asked him two weeks ago to call it off. Smith
said no. "I wouldn't let him quit," Smith says. "I told him, 'I
need more out of you, and the team needs more out of you.'"
Denver got it in a 20-6 win over Kansas City. O'Neal, a
second-year player who was still looking for his first career
interception, tied an NFL record with four pickoffs. Smith and
O'Neal are all square....
On Sunday, Titans guard Bruce Matthews set the league mark for
most games played by a nonkicker, appearing in number 283, a
26-7 loss to the Ravens, to break the record established by
Vikings defensive end Jim Marshall. "How fitting that Bruce
breaks the record in Baltimore on the weekend Cal Ripken plays
his last game," said Ravens coach Brian Billick. "They're
The Patriots' Tom Brady might be a backup quarterback thrust
into a starting job, but he's also the breath of fresh air the
team needs. After a 30-10 loss in Miami, Brady rapped his
teammates for poor practice habits. "We need to start taking a
different attitude in practice," Brady said. "You can't have an
average practice on Wednesday and Thursday, an O.K. one on
Friday and expect to play well on Sunday."...
The Jets are allowing a league-high 164 rushing yards a game,
with the Dolphins' Lamar Smith and the Rams' Marshall Faulk on
the schedule the next two weeks....
The young Eagles showed their immaturity on Sunday, letting
Arizona hang around long enough to get a last-gasp win on Jake
Plummer's 35-yard scoring pass to wideout MarTay Jenkins with
nine seconds left. The Cardinals drove 76 yards in 64 seconds
without a timeout.