"We've never seen a player like this."
Those are the words you keep hearing from analysts and fans alike regarding the 2010 version of Michael Vick. But it's fiction.
There can be no doubt Vick's arm, speed, footwork, and decision-making this season have been special. The numbers are over the top. Despite taking a slight dip after Sunday night's game, his passer rating leads the NFL at 108.7. His 6.8 yards per carry don't look right next to that rating, because no one in the history of the league has been able to hit those two marks in the same season. Meanwhile, his 5-1 record as a starter is probably the biggest reason for all the rose pedals being laid at his feet.
How to stop Vick
But we have seen this kind of talent and production before from an NFL quarterback. Strangely enough, he even wore an Eagles uniform. How soon people forget.
In 1990, general managers around the league were still looking for that 6-foot-4, howitzer-armed, quick-release quarterback who would stand in the pocket until the last possible moment, deliver the ball and take a hit. Randall Cunningham threw the ball like a guy tosses his dirty socks into a laundry hamper. That didn't stop the Pro Football Writers Association from naming him MVP. He threw more touchdowns, fewer interceptions, and posted a higher passer rating than the Associated Press MVP, Joe Montana.
Cunningham upset the delicate balance between the perception of what a good quarterback was and how the game was evolving at the time, consistently galloping out of the pocket when protection broke down while being just as lethal when the ball left his hands. Sports Illustrated dubbed him "The Ultimate Weapon." For the first time, defenses were forced to dedicate a linebacker or safety to "spy" on a quarterback, diminishing their coverage manpower for midrange and deep routes in an effort to contain jailbreak scrambles.
Like Vick in 2010, Cunningham had an outstanding passer rating of 91.6 in 1990. With the ticky-tack rules in which defensive backs play under these days, it's much easier for quarterbacks to get 100 ratings now, whereas anything over 90 back then was top-notch. Cunningham was also similar in his ability to hit the deep ball, although his resembled Jeff Blake moon-shots more than they did Vick's lasers.
Of course, both are known for running. Vick is one of the fastest guys to ever play the game, irrespective of position. Cunningham's long stride made him deceptively fast, in the Terrell Owens mold, while having a knack for sliding away from tacklers like Marcus Allen did. He rode those abilities to a staggering 942 rushing yards and 8.0 yards per carry.
Vick once put up 1,000 yards on the ground, but the excitement over his game this year has come from his ability to be a pocket passer -- a darn good one. For that, Eagles fans can thank embattled coach Andy Reid, who rolled the dice that Vick or Kevin Kolb could lead this team while dealing his franchise quarterback away. Trading Donovan McNabb within the division raised eyebrows. It's safe to say those eyebrows lowered after seeing McNabb get Grossman'd three weeks ago, while Vick destroyed the Redskins in Week 10. That game, as well as his play against the Jaguars and Colts, showed Vick was capable of taking what defenses gave him. Perhaps some of that patience comes from his time away from the game while in prison and having to wait for another chance to start.
But it's almost impossible to not see a striking similarity to Cunningham's odyssey as an NFL quarterback, who also had a lengthy break from playing when he quit football in 1996 after a series of up-and-down seasons. But Cunningham returned to seize an opportunity with Dennis Green and the Vikings in 1997. After playing sparingly that season, he spent 1998 throwing more moon-balls to rookie Randy Moss, while stacking up 34 touchdown passes and a 106.0 rating. He went 13-1 as a starter.
Hmm ... an athletic quarterback coming back from being out of the game, not playing much his first season back, and then completely lighting it up the next. Sound familiar? Reid can take a large dose of credit for Vick's resurgence, especially his noticeably improved footwork, much like former Vikings offensive coordinator Brian Billick was deemed responsible for Cunningham's return to prominence in 1998.
There are those who felt Vick might not have needed Reid to improve the quality of his NFL life had Dan Reeves remained as the Falcons coach in 2003. But the franchise quarterback's broken leg in the preseason led to an awful 3-10 start and Reeves' departure. Whether or not Vick's game faltered under Jim Mora's regime in the mid-2000s is debatable, especially considering the Falcons made it to the NFC title game in 2004. But the fact that he was inconsistent, and not much of a pocket passer, is not. So is Reid the difference in his game now, or is it Vick's attention to fundamentals?
"I told you before that I thought he had very good coaches there [in Atlanta]," Reid said at his Monday press conference. "I think it's his approach now."
There is no doubt that the media never felt former Eagles coach Rich Kotite and his staff did much to help Cunningham's career. Nor did injuries. Cunningham missed the majority of the '91 and '93 seasons, just as Vick was out most of '03.
But at the end of the day, it's incumbent on the player to make the most of his career. To do that, consistency is key. And therein was the problem with Cunningham. First, he couldn't stay healthy, and late during his tenure with the Eagles, the desire to improve came into question. He got all Vince Youngish when he was benched. And mirroring the pre-Eagles Vick, he showed flashes of athletic brilliance and production, but never sustained it for long periods of time. His miracle season of '98, when he led the Vikings to the NFC Championship Game, was followed by a 2-4 start in 1999 when he threw more interceptions than touchdowns and was benched.
Interceptions, or lack thereof, might be the most impressive part of Vick's game these days. He's punishing defenses partly because he's not giving them any plays to make -- i.e. interceptions that change games. In 191 attempts, he's yet to throw a pick.
Elliot Harrison is the research analyst for NFL RedZone on NFL Network.