By Chris Murray
For the Sunday Sun
If you flash back to when Michael Vick first arrived in Philadelphia August 2009, the reaction from most of the fans was similar to that of a lynch mob.
On the day Vick had his press conference at the Eagles Nova Care practice facility, protesters armed with dogs and signs, one of which said: “Hide your beagle, Vick’s an Eagle.”
Listening to local radio, fans were divided along racial lines with mostly white fans saying there was no forgiveness and mostly African-American fans arguing that Vick deserves a second chance.
There was even skepticism among Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie who said Vick would have to prove himself off the field more than on the field.
Fast forward to the present. Thanks to his performance both on and off the field, Vick performance has won over even his most hardened critics. It is also an example of what happens when human beings are given the opportunity to turn the corner.
Throughout the season, Vick has spent much of his free time speaking to groups of kids and urging them not to follow the example of his younger days when he seemed to be working harder at promoting dogfights than he was at making himself a better football player. Back in September, he spoke in front of kids at the Franklin Institute and told them that he was an example of someone coming back from difficult circumstances.
“There’s no question that he’s made a radical change off the field,” said James Brown, host of CBS’s pregame show, The NFL Today. “He has changed people he’s with, cut back folks who don’t mean him any good and who aren’t positive. …He’s made a commitment to be headed in the right direction. I think we ought to cheer him and provide with as much support as possible.”
NFL Commissioner Roger Goddell recently told the New York Daily News that he was pleased with Vick’s progress off the field.
“I’m proud of how he has responded,” Goodell said. “There are so many examples in our society of failure, people falling short. We need more success stories. I’m hoping Michael Vick will be a success story. People need to see that. People need to be inspired by that – a person made a tragic error and he’s overcome it.”
At the same time, there’s a part of me that wonders if people would be showering these kinds of praises upon Vick if the Eagles were 4-7 (coming into Thursday’s game against the Houston Texans) instead of 7-4? To be honest, winning upstages all the grandstanding and moralizing we like to do when the despised, sinful athlete plays for our team.
Just ask the thousands of fans in San Francisco who cheered on Barry Bonds when the rest of the world was accusing him of steroids. The standing ovation he got from the crowd at AT&T Park when he was introduced during the National League Championship Series is a perfect example of what I’m talking about.
Eagles fans, even those who were initially against Vick, are now on the bandwagon because the Eagles are performing better than anyone ever expected when Kevin Kolb was penciled by head coach Andy Reid as the starting quarterback.
Vick is 5-1 as the Birds starting quarterback and has thrown 13 touchdowns passes and just one interception. Until he was picked off in the second quarter of the loss to the Chicago Bears, he had thrown a franchise-record 220 passes without an interception. In perhaps one of the greatest individual performances by a quarterback in NFL history, Vick lit up the Washington Redskins for 333 yards passing, four touchdowns, and 80 yards rushing along with two touchdowns.
“He was the first to admit that he was most the electrifying player in the league before he went to jail without having good work habits,” Brown said. “Now he has excellent work habits, that’s what you’re seeing the results of. I think we’re going to see a lot more of that…The guy is still awesome.”
In all, Vick accounted for 413 yards and the Eagles came away with a whopping 59-28 victory over the Washington Redskins. But that monster performance got teams like the New York Giants and the Bears to come up with their own elaborate schemes to keep Vick from running wild.
The Giants blitzed Vick on just about every play and forced him right to keep him from running and making plays on the run. The maneuver was successful for most of the game until somebody in the Eagles coaching staff finally realized that running the ball might take some of the pressure off Vick who was getting whacked around by the Giants.
A 50-yard touchdown run by LeSean McCoy put the Eagles on top for good. Unfortunately, the Birds forgot that lesson when they played the Bears the next week.
In that game, the Bears put up another gimmick defense and placed their safeties 10 and 20 yards deep to prevent Vick from launching the long ball to DeSean Jackson or Jeremy Maclin. The Bears also dropped their linebackers into pass coverage.
But because Reid and the Eagles coaching staff made no adjustments and didn’t run the ball as much as they should have, that allowed the Bears front four to crash through the Eagles offensive line and sack Vick four times.
Because of the Eagles inexplicable unwillingness to run the ball inside the red zone, the turning point of the game occurred late in the second quarter when Vick threw an interception when the Eagles had the ball at the Bears four-yard line. Chicago’s offense would dominate the game.
While we all see Vick as some sort of Superman straight out of a video game, he is not going to always dominate a game like he did against Washington. Against the Bears, he did pass for 333 yards and two touchdown passes. If it wasn’t for a dropped pass by Jackson and an overthrow to tight end Brent Celek, Vick would have had four touchdown passes.
The problem I see for Vick will be the unwillingness of the Eagles coaching staff to run the ball on a more consistent basis. You can’t win a championship by chucking the ball down field on virtually every play. Didn’t Reid and the coaching staff learn anything from the Donovan McNabb years?
If the Eagles can establish a consistent running game with McCoy, you’re not going to see those gimmick defenses geared to stop Vick.
Giving the ball to McCoy about 20-25 times per game will keep teams from moving their safeties 10 or 20 yards off the ball so they can stop Vick from hitting DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin with the deep ball.
Vick’s continued success on the field as the Eagles quarterback will depend on whether or not Reid will have the patience to utilize the running game enough to keep teams from totally keying on the quarterback.