In his fifth season Mike Vick is still going all-out, putting his body at risk. How long can he keep himself in one piece?
The noise in the Alamodome was deafening, surprisingly so, as the home-away-from-home Saints made their stand against the stronger Falcons in San Antonio on Sunday. With 14 seconds left in a game tied at 31, Atlanta faced third-and-three at the New Orleans 32. Falcons offensive coordinator Greg Knapp wanted to get the ball a couple of yards closer for kicker Todd Peterson to try a field goal, but Knapp also wanted a safe play. On the headset to quarterback Mike Vick, Knapp called a Warrick Dunn run up the gut. Vick thought, We'll see.
"I couldn't run that play," Vick said, smiling as he packed his rolling suitcase in the locker room after the game. "Saints had a Zero blitz on. Everyone's coming. The safeties were down, corners down, everyone crowding the line. I hand it off and we've got a blown-up play. They'd kill Warrick."
So Vick, after surveying the defense, took the snap, faked the handoff to a stunned Dunn (for whom nine other Falcons were blocking), put the ball on his hip and took off around left end. It was a mad dash to the first-down mark, Vick racing safety Josh Bullocks. Guess who won? "No one knew," said tight end Alge Crumpler of Vick's improvisation. "All of a sudden Warrick doesn't have the ball, and I'm looking over and thinking, There goes Superman." Vick's four-yard gallop gave Atlanta a first down with nine seconds left. After the Saints were flagged for two five-yard penalties, the second of which negated Peterson's errant 41-yard field goal attempt, the Falcons' kicker was true on a 36-yarder for a 34-31 victory.
"You get into a game, a game we really needed, and you do what you have to do to win," Vick said. "It's all I know. I've been playing that way since I was a kid in the backyard. That's me."
Playing that way has also caused Vick to miss 13 of the Falcon's last 38 games because of injuries. He could start playing it safe and last longer in the NFL, but he's not going to change his game. He's not going to hand off to Dunn if he thinks he's got a better chance to make the first down himself--even if he might get steamrollered on the play. Not with a game on the line.
There are flaws still to be worked out. Too many of Vick's passes sail high or zip low and outside; after an 11-for-23 performance on Sunday the fifth-year veteran has a career completion percentage of 53.7. And he doesn't yet exhaust his receiver progression on pass plays before tucking and running; after averaging 8.0 runs per game in 2003 and 8.0 in '04, he's averaging--you guessed it--8.0 rushes per game this season. Vick may have the quickest feet of any quarterback in the 86-year history of the league, but he's asking for trouble jitterbugging out of the pocket or diving for a first down. After missing the previous game with a sprained right knee, Vick aggravated the injury when he was hit by Saints cornerback Fred Thomas on a whirling-dervish scramble midway through the first quarter.
It's almost a guilty pleasure to watch Vick these days. Is he playing on borrowed time? Instead of playing at top form into his mid-30s, as Brett Favre has, will he have the shelf life of a running back, winding down at 30? And what of the Falcons, who are on the hook for $109.8 million in contractual obligations to Vick over the next nine years? What's the cringe factor in the front office whenever he ping-pongs through a defense? "It's not something that keeps me awake at night," Falcons general manager Rich McKay says, "but I do look forward to the day when Mike stays in the pocket more."
"This is my second year in this [West Coast] system, and I'm getting it, and I'll get better," Vick said. "But I don't think I'm hit that much. A running back gets hit a lot more than I do. I'm hardly ever sore in the morning after a game. I got hit today, but I feel great right now. I know I can do this seven, eight more years."
"And stay upright?" he was asked.
Throwing with Confidence
Maura Bledsoe can tell that her husband, Cowboys quarterback Drew Bledsoe, is happier than he's been in years. She can hear it in his voice whenever he returns home from work. In Bledsoe's 12 previous NFL seasons, with the Patriots and the Bills, he rarely talked about football with his wife. Now he can't stop telling her how excited he is about his team's potential. "He's always been one to leave his work at the office," Maura says. "That's why I can tell this is a lot of fun for him."
The good times continued in Dallas's 16-13 overtime win over the Giants on Sunday. Despite committing three turnovers (an interception and two fumbles), Bledsoe still made enough plays to lead Dallas (4-2) to an important win over an NFC East rival. In the second quarter alone he completed 10 of 11 passes, including one to tight end Jason Witten for a two-yard touchdown. In overtime Bledsoe found Witten for a 26-yard completion that helped set up the winning 45-yard field goal by Jose Cortez.
Completing 26 of 37 passes, Bledsoe finished with 312 yards. More significantly he operated like the leader the Cowboys hoped they were getting when they signed him as a free agent in February. At 33 Bledsoe has become a difference-maker for an offense that had struggled with inconsistent quarterback play since Troy Aikman's retirement following the 2000 season.
"All that's happening here is that I'm getting a lot of time to make decisions with the football," says Bledsoe, giving credit to his offensive line. "I'm seeing the whole field so I don't have to worry about making the best guess [on who's open] when I'm throwing the ball. When I'm able to look at all my options instead of anticipating what they'll be, I become a better quarterback."
Bledsoe arrived in Dallas after a rocky three-year stint in Buffalo ended with the Bills' decision to make unproven second-year quarterback J.P. Losman the starter. (Losman has since been benched in favor of Kelly Holcomb.) Bledsoe, who went to the Pro Bowl after his first season in Buffalo, was stunned by the decision, but his anger subsided after the Bills cut him in February; that allowed him the chance to become a starter elsewhere. Signing with the Cowboys a day later, he was reunited with coach Bill Parcells, who was Bledsoe's boss in New England from 1993 through '96. "The first thing he said when I talked to him about coming here," says Dallas owner Jerry Jones, "was that he wanted to show people what he could still do."
At the outset Parcells told Bledsoe the Cowboys wouldn't be throwing the ball 50 times a game and that he wanted Bledsoe to avoid the sacks that resulted from hiss lack of mobility and tendency to hold onto the ball for too long. Bledsoe got the message and has completed 63.3% of his passes for 1,663 yards, 11 touchdowns and only four interceptions through Week 6. His quarterback rating of 100.4 is well above his career mark of 77.5. "They're doing a good job of protecting him, they're throwing the ball quickly, and he's playing against NFC teams he hasn't played against for a while," says Bills general manager Tom Donahoe. "We'll see what happens when teams play him the second time around."
Bledsoe knows he will always have his skeptics, but he believes he won't let this team down. "I just feel like I know what it takes to win games now," he says. "It's about recognizing when to be more cautious with the ball, what to say to a teammate, how to get the team into the right play. Those are things that allow you to be really effective, and I feel like I'm doing those things here."
The Broncos aren't getting carried away with their 5-1 start. They opened the last three seasons 4-1, 5-1 and 5-1 but then went a combined 15-16 over the remainder of those seasons.... Steve McNair's back is acting up, which means the Titans' quarterback may have to stand on the team's charter from Nashville to Phoenix for Sunday's game against the Cardinals. "That's the least of our worries right now," says McNair. Turning around a 2-4 season is a bigger concern.... Randy Moss (above) hasn't been the impact player the Raiders were expecting. After suffering a strained groin, bruised ribs and a back contusion, and being shut out in Oakland's loss to San Diego on Sunday, he has only 19 catches for 466 yards and two touchdowns in his team's 1-4 start.... Cowboys coach Bill Parcells kiddingly asked fragile wideout Terry Glenn last week if this isn't the time when Glenn usually "runs out of gas." Last fall, for example, Glenn tore ligaments in his left foot on Oct. 24 and missed the rest of the season. This year he's averaging 97 receiving yards a game as Drew Bledsoe's primary deep threat. "That's my top priority, to make it through the season," Glenn says. "If I'm on the field and playing every down, I think we've got a really good chance to win."