Eagles' Vick needs protection in more ways than one

Rest assured there will be a quarterback leading the Philadelphia Eagles in their game Sunday night against the Dallas Cowboys.

Not a running back who happens to have a good arm, but a quarterback -- someone who works from the pocket, reads coverages, and throws with accuracy. He studies, dissects, and processes all of the many details and intricacies that go with playing the position.

Michael Vick does all of that.

But the fact that he also is an extraordinary runner is more than a reason he's a leading candidate for league MVP honors and the Eagles are a strong postseason contender. It's a potential liability, at least when it comes to getting a fair shake from the officials.

As coach Andy Reid recently pointed out, Vick takes hits from defenders that aren't drawing flags as readily as the contact some other quarterbacks receive because officials view him as more of a runner than a passer. Vick's teammates see the same thing and aren't any happier about it.

"I think Mike should be protected (by the officials)," tight end Brent Celek said. "He's a quarterback in this league, just like (the others). I'm guessing it's just harder for officials to see that when they see the way he runs the ball. The guy's such an athlete out there that it's hard to sit back and say, 'Man, this guy is a quarterback,' just because of the plays he makes with his feet."

"So I think, when he takes off, refs are just like, 'This guy was built to run and take these hits.' But I agree with coach Reid. He shouldn't have to take those hits."

Said wide receiver Jason Avant: "I know that when you graze a Peyton Manning's or Tom Brady's helmet or if you get close to them, it's a flag coming out. But we know we've got a different animal than that."

Different, but a quarterback nonetheless. That means the men in stripes should be watching out for him every bit as much as they do Manning, Brady, and the rest of his fellow passers.

Celek has seen situations in which Vick has "been kind of on the ground and guys are just diving for him." He understands the harsh reality of football: Take out the quarterback, especially one as dangerous as Vick, and you enhance your chances of winning. But if the officials won't always look after Vick the way they should, his teammates will.

"I think, when he takes off, refs are just like, 'This guy was built to run and take these hits.' But... he shouldn't have to take those hits."

-- Eagles tight end Brent Celek, on the lack of protection Michael Vick receives from officials

"We've got to protect him," Celek said. "He's a huge asset to our team, so there's times where we're going to have to run downfield and make sure guys aren't diving on him, and protect him in the pocket, too."

Said Eagles offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg: "I think we can get better at (protecting mobile quarterbacks) as a league. I've been through it (as a coach) with Steve Young and Donovan (McNabb) and (Jeff) Garcia and even (Brett) Favre. The guys that can move real well and are good athletes, you don't get nearly as many calls, so I think we can put a focus in on some of those athletic quarterbacks. And I think it's got to be more than just (officials being) aware. I think they've really got to focus in on active quarterbacks because those quarterbacks are so important."

Vick certainly is more important than most. With every game he has played since replacing Kevin Kolb as a starter earlier in the season, Vick has taken major strides and become what he never was while making all of those exciting runs earlier in his career with the Atlanta Falcons: A complete quarterback. When the play calls for him to pass, he looks to make the throw and only runs when he absolutely must.

And when Vick moves his feet, it's just as likely for buying time in the pocket as it is to make a gain.

Avant has witnessed Vick's blossoming as a passer right before his eyes. A classic example came during the Eagles' Week 12 game against the Chicago Bears. After the Bears had effectively blitzed him with a cornerback, Vick went to the sidelines to review snapshots of their defense. He saw how the Eagles could counter the strategy. Then he pulled Avant aside.

"He says, 'Jay, the next time the cornerback is coming off the edge, just look (for the hot route), and I will give it to you sooner than what I normally would,'" Avant said. "'I'm not going to give it to you on (a) five-step (drop); I'm going to give it to you on three-step.'"

When Vick does take a deeper drop, he is able to extend plays because, as Avant explained, "he has his legs to get through the progression. When a quarterback usually has three seconds, he has five or six seconds to get the ball to you."

The Eagles find themselves with an 8-4 record and in a first-place tie with the New York Giants in the NFC East. Few pundits predicted they would have this sort of success. After shipping McNabb to the Redskins and making Kolb their starting quarterback, the Eagles were seen as a team in transition. That is, until Kolb suffered a concussion in the season opener against Green Bay and Vick took over and began looking like, well, an MVP candidate.

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"Basically, (the coaches) just took him and they stripped him apart and they put him back together the way they thought a quarterback should be," Celek said. "They worked on his fundamentals, how he should drop, keep his knees bent, his throwing motion, all that stuff. I think once they did that and they worked on his mechanics -- obviously, he's an amazing athlete -- it made him that much better."

Mornhinweg has seen continual improvement in Vick dating to last year, when he was signed after serving a two-year prison term for his involvement in a dog-fighting ring.

He is particularly proud of the fact that, with Vick under center, the Eagles have the NFL's top-ranked offense. Although they are hardly known as a running team, their ground attack ranks fifth -- largely because of Vick's 467 yards, which ranks second on the team -- and their passing attack is seventh.

"He's played at a very high level from the get-go, and he's continued to get better," Mornhinweg said. "Usually, there are small, detail things that he's working on after every game, going into (the) next week. He's really been outstanding, and he put all the hard work and all the preparation in for the last year-and-a-half. All of the attention he's getting, he's earned it.

"The day he got here, one of his goals and our goals, was he wanted to play the quarterback position at a high level rather than just playing quarterback. There's a big difference. So he put all of the hard work and preparation into that. He worked diligently. I'm talking 20-30 minutes before every practice last year, 20-30 minutes after every practice with very, very few exceptions -- working on the art of playing quarterback. And he escalated very, very quickly because he's got good instincts. He's got natural instincts.

"The second thing is with his great ability and athleticism, he has been -- up to this point, at least -- very disciplined within his movements, where it's not just helter-skelter. There are ways to manage the pocket, there are ways to move with some discipline, and he's done it just beautifully."

The challenge only figures to get more difficult Sunday night when the Eagles and Cowboys play for the first time this season. For one thing, although the Cowboys are in last place at 4-8, they have won three of their last four games and came close to winning all four. For another, as a team all but out of playoff contention, they would like nothing better than to ruin the postseason chances of a divisional rival.

"They screwed up our season last year, single-handedly," Celek said of the Eagles' three losses to the Cowboys last year in the regular season and the playoffs. "I think we realize that the whole season comes down to these four games. It's really like we're in the playoffs right now, starting this week against Dallas. We've got to win this game, because if we don't, it's going to be that much tougher just to make the playoffs."

The Cowboys have made their greatest progress on offense, but their defense still has some playmakers and is capable of getting pressure on a quarterback even as mobile as Vick. Outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware leads the team with 9.5 sacks. Nose tackle Jay Ratliff has only 2.5 sacks but does a superb job of collapsing the pocket.

"They've been doing a great job," Avant said. "The team has never had a talent problem. It's just that earlier in the season, they didn't have the teamwork to go along with their talent. They didn't have some situations go their way, but they're definitely a playoff-caliber team, and we know that, and we're going to take them as the good team that we know they are."

During Vick's ascension, the Eagles have seen new defensive wrinkles from opponents each week. Thanks to his multi-faceted skills, those wrinkles can change constantly during a game. They are expecting that to be the case Sunday night.

"It's hard for us, on offense, to really know what teams are going to do against us, because there are some teams that feel like you should blitz Michael, there are some teams that feel like you should just play Cover 2," Celek said. "It's hard to know, going into a game, what you're going to face. But when you've got Mike in there, you're confident that any time you've got the ball, you're going to be able to score."

For the most part, teams do their best to keep Vick contained to minimize his running threat while also trying to hit him as often as possible in or out of the pocket. During the course of each game, Reid, Mornhinweg, and the rest of the Eagles' offensive coaches usually find themselves embroiled in an intense chess match as they adjust protections, routes, and other aspects of the offense on every snap.

"They do something, and you counter it," Mornhinweg. "We're also going to do some of the things that we do best, as well. We like to dictate. Now, when people are playing their end 5 yards outside our tight end, that's a little different. They just try to keep him in the pocket, and that's (one area in which) he's escalated his play, up to this point, almost to an art level. He's been outstanding within the pocket as well with pressure and people in his face."

The key for the rest of the Eagles -- and the officials -- is to do their part to help keep Vick in one piece.

Follow Vic Carucci on Twitter @viccarucci.