The pocket collapsed as quickly as a sand castle at high tide, and Michael Vick had nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. Before Vick, the Atlanta Falcons quarterback, could draw on his famous flight instinct, he found himself toppled in a heap of humanity as two dozen prepubescent pursuers playfully piled on. Vick, his left shoulder already aching from a cortisone injection earlier in the day, winced. In an instant, however, his grimace turned into a grin. "Damn, you kids are strong," he said, pulling up the gray cargo shorts that had slipped below his waist. "What are they feeding y'all these days?" ¬∂ A few minutes earlier Vick had arrived at his football camp at the State University of West Georgia in Carrollton, where more than 250 kids ages eight to 18 spent several days last week getting up close and personal with the NFL's most electrifying player. His hourlong drive from Atlanta delayed by medical business at the team's facility--an MRI on his sore passing shoulder came up negative--Vick apologized to his awed audience and gave a brief motivational talk before instructing the campers to "bring it up." A few seconds later some of the younger ones brought him down, albeit only in a literal sense.
"Getting to be out here with these kids reminds me of why I play football," Vick said a few hours later. "This is why you work so hard to try to be the best. Being here gives me a chance to reflect on what the game really is. It's not just the fundamentals, going out there and trying to throw an accurate pass. Football is bigger than that. It's about team building, friendship, leadership and learning how to win. I was able to grasp that at an early age, and hopefully these kids can start to do that here."
That these elements are essential to football success seems obvious to Vick, and he finds it perplexing that some of America's leading gridiron minds have refused to take them into account when critiquing his breathtaking but sometimes choppy play. Never has a quarterback achieved so much in so little time while being routinely ripped. Visit any NFL press box--or, for that matter, any fantasy-football chat room or personnel meeting--and someone will opine that Vick, for all his scintillating skills, isn't really a quarterback. Vick is sick of it.
"The commentators can say that all they want," he says, "but tell them to ask any defensive coordinator in the league this question: 'Do you game-plan for Michael Vick in the passing game?' I guarantee you 31 coordinators will say, 'You're damned right we do.' I don't care what my numbers say; that's a quarterback."
Falcons owner Arthur Blank certainly agrees, as evidenced by the 10-year, $130 million extension to which he signed Vick last December. It was an acknowledgement that in four NFL seasons Vick, the No. 1 pick in the 2001 draft, had helped lift the Falcons from the dregs of the league to its upper echelon. In the two campaigns in which he started more than four games, Vick guided Atlanta to the 2002 NFC divisional playoffs (in the wild-card round the Falcons handed the Green Bay Packers their first postseason loss at Lambeau Field) and to last season's NFC Championship Game, which Atlanta lost to the Philadelphia Eagles 27-10. His winning percentage as a starter is 65.3--Atlanta is 9-19 without him--and he has been selected to play in two of the last three Pro Bowls.
Yet after watching some of the Sunday pregame shows, the same fans who gobble up Vick's jerseys (the league's second-highest sellers in April and May, behind only Oakland Raiders wideout Randy Moss's) might wonder whether he is as lacking in fundamentals as most of the kids at his camp. Indeed, even one of those kids, 12-year-old Brant Moore from Peachtree City, Ga., declared, "I think he should be a running back instead of a quarterback."
"A lot of football people rightfully question his credentials as a pocket passer," one AFC general manager said last week. "You can't criticize any other part of his game, and maybe at some point he doesn't have to beat you from the pocket, but that's the only [unknown]--can he deliver the medium-to-deep balls when he's not on the run? People have figured out that it's best to rush him down the middle, and to be a great player in this league you've got to be able to make adjustments. We'll see how he adjusts this year."
Last October, Fox analyst Jimmy Johnson called Vick "the most inconsistent quarterback in the NFL." Other critics have dismissed him as a glorified running back who is overly reckless with his body and the football. Last season Vick fumbled a league-high 16 times and was sacked once for every eight drop-backs, the worst rate in the league. He also was well down on the league's statistical charts in passer rating (78.1, 21st), passing yards (2,313, 26th) and completion percentage (56.4, 27th). Vick did run for 902 yards, the third-highest total by a quarterback in league history.
He spent last season assimilating first-year coach Jim Mora's version of the West Coast offense. Vick insists that he's adjusting to the timing-based scheme, that he can chart his own progress based on his off-season sessions with offensive coordinator Greg Knapp. "I wish I could have started my career in this system," he says. "It's still a learning process, but the difference between this year and last year is a complete 180. I make mistakes [in practice] now, and before the words are even out of my coach's mouth, I know what I've done wrong."
Falcons safety Keion Carpenter, a close friend of Vick's since their days at Virginia Tech, says his teammates scoff at those who cite statistics as a measure of the quarterback's inadequacy. "This man is one of the most unselfish teammates you'll ever see, because he truly doesn't care about his numbers," Carpenter says. "As long as I've known him, every time someone says he can't do something or sets up barriers, he leaps over them."
His critics, Vick claims, "have me and my homeboys sitting around and laughing all the time." Yet Vick hasn't been able to brush off the criticism so easily. "I hear people saying, 'Mike Vick can't throw from the pocket,' and I'm like, What are y'all looking at?" he says. "What do all those passing yards mean at the end of the year if you don't win? I know who every one of those critics is; some of them have never played the game and don't know what they're talking about. Eventually I'll earn their respect because I'll continue to work hard. But in the meantime I advise them to keep doing what they're doing because it helps motivate me."
Vick, once blissfully devoid of public trepidation, has grown accustomed to feeling like a target. "There's always someone knocking on your door or getting in your face, trying to get you to start a business or to get something from you," he says. Though he declines to discuss it in detail, Vick is clearly troubled by the lawsuit filed against him in March by a Georgia woman who claims that he gave her herpes. "It's a serious issue," Vick says. "[Having to deal with] stuff like that is a part of being me. But I've got a strong legal team by my side that's ready to handle its business."
When Vick was a 10-year-old growing up in Newport News, Va., he had a brush with fame that would shape his behavior to this day. While attending a football game at Hampton University, Vick was walking outside the stadium when he noticed a rottweiler peeking out of a parked SUV. "I was like, Damn, whose dog is that?" he recalls. "I heard a door slam and looked back, and it was [Buffalo Bills All-Pro defensive end] Bruce Smith. I thought, That ain't Bruce Smith. My heart was beating like crazy. But I yelled out, 'Bruce!' and he said, 'What's up?' and threw me the peace sign."
It wasn't quite a Mean Joe Greene moment, but Vick felt enough of a connection that he vowed to reach out to the younger generation if he were ever to make it big. At last week's camp he made a point of injecting himself into drills, playfully pump-faking before unleashing spirals and high-fiving receivers after catches. One day on the way to camp, he also made a surprise visit to an Atlanta radio station to meet with an eight-year-old boy who'd been wounded by a stray bullet in a drive-by shooting.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said 12-year-old camper Carlo Barrera of Austin. "I've been watching him since he started playing, and I think he's one of the best quarterbacks in history." One reason Vick resonates with kids is that he plays the game in a spontaneous, unbounded manner to which they can relate. Meanwhile, Vick appreciates the children's directness and lack of guile--they may be coming at him, like everyone else, but at least they don't have a concealed angle. In his words, "They want me, but they just want some attention and affection."
One night Vick flashed a boyish grin as he bounced between a pair of fields on which campers squared off in full-contact scrimmages. He and several of his friends, including Carpenter, oohed and aahed over big hits and flashy plays, growing most excited when the camp's smallest participant, eight-year-old Malik Clemons, cut back twice on a long touchdown run. A few minutes later Malik, while blocking for another ballcarrier, lit up a camper twice his size. "That little dude's serious, man!" Vick exclaimed. "My camp will teach you how to play football."
It was nearly nine o'clock when the session ended, and the setting sun had given a peachlike tint to the billowy clouds above. "I'm too tall to act small," Vick sang as some of the younger campers descended, playfully daring him to participate in the following evening's scrimmages. "It's on, Vick--tomorrow," a broad-shouldered camper growled. "When I'm finished with you, all you're gonna see is pitch-black." Vick cracked up. A crew-cut camper chimed in that he was going to leave Vick seeing nothing but "white light, baby," then reconsidered his position.
"Actually," he said, latching on to Vick's passing arm, "I want to be on your team."