HE TRIED to laugh it off. All week long, as half of Georgia seemed to be freaking out about his lack of preseason preparation and fretting over his adjustment to a new offense, Michael Vick told himself how silly it all was. Thirteen months earlier fans had heralded the Atlanta Falcons' quarterback as the NFL's 21st-century superstar, yet now, after viewing 29 preseason snaps, they were getting hot and bothered. "The same people who love you when you're going good are the ones who jump on your back the next minute," Vick reasoned three days before the Falcons' season opener, against the San Francisco 49ers. "It's hilarious. I love it. Go ahead and say what you want, but I know the truth: Can't nobody do what I do."
Midway through the national anthem at Candlestick Park on Sunday, as a pleasant breeze blew a layer of fog out toward the Pacific, Vick lost his bravado. At about the time a naval choir was serenading 65,584 fans with "the bombs bursting in air," butterflies were fluttering in the fourth-year quarterback's stomach. Having missed out on the Falcons' 2003 opener--and all but the final month of that miserable season--while nursing a broken right ankle, Vick had anticipated this moment for a long time. Now here he was in San Francisco, at the stadium in which he had made his NFL debut, against the team he'd grown up worshipping, and he was too ready. He began to hyperventilate.
The anthem ended, and F-15s soared over the stadium. The fans rose as the Niners' Todd Peterson boomed the opening kickoff toward the south end zone--his back to the very spot where Vick, upon entering his first NFL huddle in 2001, cracked up his disbelieving teammates during a timeout by pulling a tube of ChapStick out of his helmet and applying it to his lips. He smiled at the memory and began to calm down.
In his 22nd career regular-season start, Vick once again proved to be da balm for a franchise that seems to invite skepticism. By halftime of Atlanta's 21--19 victory he had reestablished himself as the NFL's preeminent young gun, completing 11 of 13 passes for 145 yards and a touchdown. Rather than relying on his unmatched speed, Vick showcased his strong left arm, threading the ball between helpless defenders and unleashing some of the prettiest fastballs at the 'Stick since the days of Juan Marichal. I'm back,Vick thought as he staked the Falcons to a 14--0 lead midway through the second quarter. I'm in the zone, and it's only going to get better.
It didn't, though--Vick's second half was as mundane as his first half was ethereal, and Atlanta defensive end Rod Coleman had to bat down a pass on an attempted two-point conversion with 40 seconds remaining to secure the victory. But the Falcons left Candlestick with a renewed swagger that only the man in the number 7 jersey can provide.
"We've all got some work to do, but watching Michael Vick develop in this system is going to be really fun this year," new Falcons coach Jim Mora said after his triumphant return to San Francisco, where he spent the previous seven seasons as an assistant coach, the last five as defensive coordinator. "I can understand why everybody on the outside has been trying to put a negative spin on Mike's transition. But internally, what we see is an unlimited opportunity for him to grow in this offense."
Mora wasn't so understanding last week when an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter asked what once would have seemed an unthinkable question: After a preseason in which Vick, bothered by hamstring and thumb injuries, completed just 5 of 12 passes for 35 yards and an interception--whereas rookie third-round draft pick Matt Schaub (54 of 86, 655 yards, six touchdowns, two interceptions) was impressively seizing the backup job--might Mora have a quick hook? "There is zero percent chance of that happening," replied Mora, whose primary preseason goal had been to keep Vick healthy, thus sparing himself the nightmare that his predecessor, Dan Reeves, endured in 2003.
Fresh off a breakout 2002 campaign that included a command performance in Atlanta's wild-card playoff upset of the Green Bay Packers--the first postseason victory by a road team at Lambeau Field--Vick arrived at training camp last summer hotter than Howard Dean. Then, in an Aug. 16 preseason game against the Baltimore Ravens, Vick was dragged down while scrambling and crumpled to the turf with a broken fibula. The Falcons didn't recover, and a staggering period of futility was extended: Never in the franchise's 38-year history has Atlanta put together consecutive winning seasons.
Like frat brothers gearing up for an afternoon football game, the Falcons went ugly early, their season essentially ending last Oct. 13 with a 36--0 loss to the St. Louis Rams on Monday Night Football, after which owner Arthur Blank took out a full-page newspaper ad apologizing for his team's pitiful performance. As Vick stood on the sideline watching Atlanta slip to 1--5, he could scarcely contain his disdain. "It was pandemonium," Vick recalls. "Everybody had their heads down, coaches were frustrated with each other, and I couldn't do anything about it. I wished I could just go home and not even be a part of it."
Originally expected to miss as few as four games, Vick stayed out until Nov. 30 as he waited for the ankle to heal, triggering a backlash from some fans who doubted his dedication. Even Reeves publicly questioned Vick's intention not to play until the ankle was 100%. On Dec. 7, with the Falcons at 2--10, Vick finally made his first start--and promptly led Atlanta to a 20--14 overtime upset of the eventual NFC champion Carolina Panthers. It was too late to save Reeves, who was fired three days later, but Vick did guide the Falcons to a 3--1 finish. "If I hadn't come back for those last four games, I think it would've backfired on me," Vick says. "I would've lost the respect of my teammates."
Mistaken as that assessment might be--"I'd have known he was just being smart with his body, and I don't know anyone in this locker room who'd have felt otherwise," says linebacker Keith Brooking, the Falcons' defensive leader--it shows how seriously Vick views his role. Teammates say he has become increasingly vocal since the arrival of the 42-year-old Mora, whose energy and intensity captivated Vick from the day the two met.
Vick has similarly taken to even-keeled offensive coordinator Gregg Knapp, whom Mora brought with him from San Francisco, a move that led to the popular belief that the Falcons would install the West Coast offense. "The verbiage is the same, but it is not the same offense," Mora insists, though some elements are clearly similar: a reliance on short, timing-based passes with quick progressions and a premium on accuracy. Call it the New South offense, and watch to see whether Vick, a career 52.4% passer, can improve his control while retaining his improvisational brilliance.
"Mike is always going to be Mike, but the great thing is, he doesn't have to go out and run for 150 yards anymore," says running back Warrick Dunn, who carried 19 times for 63 yards and two touchdowns against San Francisco. "Once we get this offense down to second nature, with all our weapons, it's going to be scary."
For inspiration Vick need only look to the nimble lefty he idolized as a teenager, former 49ers star Steve Young. "Don't start that talk about his lack of accuracy," cautions Young. "I'm telling you, accuracy comes with time, and with the teaching he's getting now, I see nothing but upside." Young's optimism is based on his own experience: After taking over as San Francisco's starter in 1991, he had a choppy transition period as coaches tried to tame his tendency to improvise. He didn't truly become a master at reading defenses until 1994, a season that ended with Young's throwing a record six touchdown passes in the Niners' Super Bowl XXIX blowout of the San Diego Chargers. The thing was, the future Hall of Famer was so talented that while learning on the fly he was able to win three consecutive passing titles and a league MVP by the end of the '93 season and lead the Niners to two NFC title games.
"Even when he was learning the offense, Steve could always go to the run, whether you wanted him to or not, and he just got better and better," says former 49ers coach Bill Walsh, who popularized the West Coast offense. "Vick can be the same way. If he gets comfortable in this offense, he can be one of the greatest to play the game."
Mindful of Vick's mobility, Mora and Knapp plan to feature plenty of rollout passes and other play-action throws in which the quarterback moves out of the pocket. Though he had his shaky moments on Sunday, getting sacked four times and twice recovering his own fumbles, Vick at times looked as sharp throwing the ball as he ever has.
On the first play of the second quarter Vick, facing third-and-eight from Atlanta's 10, fired a 16-yard pass between two defenders and into the chest of wideout Brian Finneran, who caught the ball in front of a third San Francisco player, cornerback Ahmed Plummer. Two plays later Vick rolled right as if to run, stopped abruptly, set his feet and whipped a 22-yard pass to tight end Alge Crumpler (six catches, 82 yards, one touchdown). The magic continued later in the second quarter as Vick, following a play fake to Dunn, rolled to his left and threw on the run to wideout Peerless Price (four catches, 62 yards) for a 20-yard gain, setting up Dunn's two-yard touchdown burst on the next play.
At that point San Francisco trailed 14--0, and the fans had already directed a smattering of boos at the Niners' struggling offense. A late rally led by quarterback Tim Rattay (18 for 31, 175 yards), combined with Vick's wobbly second half (he had just two completions to finish 13 of 22 for 163 yards), made the game far too close for Mora's liking, but the choked-up coach let go of his stress as Vick presented him with a game ball in the locker room.
It was a landmark victory, to be sure, but Vick did not view it as an anomaly. "All preseason long, people were saying we didn't even look like a .500 team," Vick said as he walked from the Falcons' locker room and out to the Candlestick parking lot. "Good. Let us sneak up on people. But I'll tell you this: With this team on my back, I can't ever see us being below .500."
The quarterback smiled faintly, but he definitely wasn't laughing.
"MIKE IS ALWAYS GOING TO BE MIKE," says Dunn, "but the great thing is, he doesn't have to go out and run for 150 yards anymore."