Can he do it again?
That's the question defensive coordinators around the league are asking as they ponder game plans for neutralizing the new and improved Michael Vick.
The four-time Pro Bowler is coming off of his best season as a passer. Vick finished with the league's fourth-best passer rating (100.2) behind 3,018 yards, a 62.6 completion percentage and 21 touchdowns to just six interceptions. He finished second in the league with 12 passes of 40-plus yards and his 8.1 yards per attempt ranked fourth only behind Philip Rivers, Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger.
Those numbers are remarkable when considering Vick's struggles as a passer for most of his career. He had never surpassed the 3,000-yard mark during his previous seven seasons, and his completion percentage had been around 55 percent for most of his career.
Coach Andy Reid and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg deserve the credit for transforming Vick from a run-first playmaker to a polished pocket passer. They cleaned up some of the sloppy footwork and mechanics that led to this inconsistency. In addition, they taught Vick to play with better discipline and focus as a passer. Vick resisted the temptation to flee the pocket at the first sign of trouble, and relied on his arm and awareness of "hot routes" to defeat the rush.
Granted, Vick still terrorized opponents by taking off when the middle of the field opened up, but his improvised runs were drastically reduced from his days as a hybrid running back in Atlanta.
During his tenure with the Falcons, Vick would simply rely on his speed and athleticism to carry the offense. His improvisational skills frequently led to highlight plays, but it was hard for the unit to sustain long drives.
Given his success as a runner and struggles from the pocket, opponents would employ spy tactics with a linebacker or safety and dare Vick to string together a series of completions. Although Vick would occasionally enjoy a big passing day, the prevailing thought among defensive coordinators was that he had less of an impact as a passer than a runner.
Teams attempted to use those same tactics against Vick last season, but had little success derailing the Eagles' offense with the quarterback patiently picking apart opponents with pinpoint throws. He finished with eight regular-season games of 250-plus passing yards, and seven contests with multiple touchdowns.
With Vick suddenly capable of winning games with his arm or feet, defensive play-callers had to adjust.
Rather than challenge Vick with regular personnel, opponents started to incorporate "Big Nickel" packages with three safeties on the field. The additional safety allowed teams to pressure Vick with sub-package blitzes, while also getting another athlete on the field to chase him out of the pocket.
The New York Giants and Minnesota Vikings had success using defensive backs as rushers off the edge to make Vick to get rid of the ball quickly or flee the pocket. Both also sent rushers extensively from Vick's left to force him to run to his right, which made it difficult for him to throw while rolling away from his strong side.
Even though those tactics certainly limited Vick's effectiveness in each of those contests, he still found a way to impact those games. An offseason spent studying those methods should only make Vick more effective.
Vick has become an unstoppable force under Reid and Mornhinweg, but ability to adapt to the strategies presented by astute defensive coordinators will determine whether the Eagles will continue to fly in 2011.