Now that Michael Vick has been conditionally reinstated into the NFL, teams are pouring over old Atlanta Falcons game tape to determine if the three-time Pro Bowl quarterback has the skills to orchestrate a comeback after a 23-month federal sentence kept him out the league for two years.
Vick has long elicited divided opinions for his play at quarterback. Passing-game aficionados detest Vick's streaky proficiency and troublesome throwing mechanics, but others are intoxicated by his electrifying running skills and playmaking ability. Thus, teams are seemingly divided on how to assess the six-year veteran's talent and value at this point.
In evaluating Vick, most would say he falls short based on a criterion that is often used to grade conventional quarterbacks. Pocket passers are judged on their arm strength, accuracy and decision-making, and Vick's career numbers don't measure up to the elite throwers at the position.
Vick has completed just 53.8 percent of his passes throughout his career (for comparison's sake, only one quarterback in the NFL had a lower percentage last season), and he has only once tallied a passer rating over 80.0 (his career best is 81.3 in 2004). Moreover, Vick has never passed for more than 3,000 yards in a single season, and he has thrown for 20 touchdowns in a season only once.
With numbers like that, most scouts have completely dismissed the notion that Vick could grow into a capable NFL passer, but he has flashed promise at times. When working as the trigger man in coach Dan Reeves' Falcons offense, Vick completed nearly 55 percent of his passes with 16 touchdowns against just eight interceptions. Of course, Reeves revamped his offensive system to maximize Vick's skills after selecting the former Virginia Tech star with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2001 draft.
To offset Vick's limited experience as a passer, Reeves incorporated several easy-to-read concepts that allowed his young signal-caller to focus solely on one side of the field. With receiving options placed within his line of vision at short, intermediate and deep levels, Vick was able to play "pitch and catch" without making a ton of complicated reads. The simplistic approach allowed Vick to amass a career-high 195.9 passing yards per game in his second season and lead the Falcons into the NFC Championship Game.
After Reeves was deposed after the 2003 season, Vick struggled while transitioning to the West Coast-style scheme installed by coach Jim Mora and offensive coordinator Gregg Knapp. The intricate reads of the system led to indecisiveness in the pocket, and the quick-rhythm nature of the passing game was ill-suited for Vick's skill set. However, Vick seemingly made strides as a passer each season while operating the complex system. His passing touchdowns increased each year, and he totaled a career-high 20 in his last NFL season.
While Vick's skills as a passer remain in question, his electrifying running skills and athleticism is indubitable. As one of the fastest players to ever man the position, Vick routinely used his feet to escape trouble in the pocket. Moreover, he used his superior quickness to thrive as a quasi-running back. Vick set a league record for rushing yards by a quarterback (1,039) in 2006, and he rushed for more than 500 yards in four of his six seasons. With an unaccountable dynamic weapon available in the running game, the Falcons finished among the top five teams in rushing offense four times, including three straight No. 1 finishes from 2004 to 2006.
Though Vick often is remembered for helping the Falcons achieve success in several statistical categories, his biggest contribution was his ability to guide his team to wins. The Falcons were 38-28-1 with Vick as a starter and enjoyed a 2-2 playoff mark with him at the helm. Vick's regular-season .567 winning percentage ranked sixth among active quarterbacks (minimum 40 career starts) at the time of his original suspension and indicated that he was capable of leading a team to victories in an unconventional manner.
However, Vick's time away from the game has led many to wonder if he is still capable of winning games using unorthodox methods. Vick's superior athleticism might have deteriorated during his two-year layoff, and scouts wonder if he could function as a quarterback without his strongest asset. Thus, many have suggested that Vick remake himself into a "Wildcat" quarterback or as a utility player capable of contributing as a multi-positional threat.
But those cynics should revisit the career of Randall Cunningham before dismissing Vick as a novelty act.
Cunningham, a four-time Pro Bowl quarterback during his 16-year career, was viewed, much like Vick, as the "ultimate weapon" during his early years in Philadelphia. The all-time rushing leader for quarterbacks terrorized opponents with his dazzling running skills as he amassed over 500 rushing yards in six of his first eight seasons. Ironically, Cunningham's spectacular improvisational prowess overshadowed his streaky skills as a passer early in his career. He completed more than 60 percent of his passes only once during his first eight seasons, but he earned three Pro Bowl berths and a league MVP award while leading the Eagles to a 52-33-1 record that included four playoff appearances during that span.
In addition to those parallels, Vick also is attempting to bounce back from an unexpected sabbatical in the prime of his career, much like Cunningham did in 1997. Cunningham sat out the 1996 season while enjoying a short-lived retirement, but he returned to the league the following year as a much different player than when he left.
Prior to his sudden sabbatical, Cunningham was regarded as a revolutionary playmaker with unrefined passing skills. Yet he came back as an efficient pocket passer with excellent decision-making skills. His growth was reflected during a sensational 1998 season in which he led the Vikings to a 15-1 record while passing for a career-high 3,704 yards and compiled a gaudy 106.0 passer rating.
While Vick might never eclipse those kinds of numbers as a passer, it serves as an example for the kind of growth he could make as a player after an extended leave from the game.
Given that sentiment and the fact that there is a thin talent pool at the position, it is only a matter of time before a team takes a chance on Vick's immense talent. If David Carr, Joey Harrington and Patrick Ramsey can occupy spots as backups after flaming out as first-round draft picks, there is bound to be a place for a three-time Pro Bowler. Even Ryan Leaf got a second chance.