Will the real Mike Vick please stand up

Vick M. run 2bw.jpgUnless you were living under a rock for the past couple years, you’re probably familiar with Nike’s popular “Michael Vick Experience” commercial.

You know the spot, the one that showed kids getting strapped into a roller coaster-like ride that simulated what it’s like to be the Falcons’ incomparable quarterback on the playing field. The commercial gave viewers a first-hand look at Vick’s amazing abilities, with only a small portion of the high-speed footage needing digital enhancement. Production values aside, the award-winning commercial didn’t do Vick justice when it came to recreating the seemingly effortless way he eludes defenders en route to some of the most spectacular plays the league has seen in years.

Off the field though, it’s been a much rougher ride for the top pick in the 2001 NFL Draft, one that features constant criticism and intense scrutiny of his passing accuracy, as well as his ability to grasp the subtle nuances of the West Coast Offense.

While Vick isn’t the first – and likely won’t be the last –  to struggle with the intricate philosophies associated with Hall-of-Fame coach Bill Walsh’s famed offense, he feels more confident than ever heading into his third year of running the system.

“I don’t think there was any one area of it that gave me trouble but I think in any offense it’s going to take time to understand each and everything there is to learn about it,” Vick said. “It’s a long process and I think going into my third year with it, I’ve finally reached my comfort level.”

Vick’s new-found comfort zone could mean big trouble for the rest of the NFL, as the Falcons and their leader appear to have addressed their 2005 shortcomings. The team solidified its offensive line by trading for veteran tackle Wayne Gandy, upgraded its defensive secondary by signing free agent Lawyer Milloy and drafted a talented cover guy in Jimmy Williams. The team also added the biggest name on the free agent market this year in defensive end John Abraham. Add in the fact that Vick’s young receivers, Michael Jenkins and Roddy White, now have another year in the system under their belts so you can see why there’s plenty of optimism in Hotlanta.

“We’re all very confident. We feel good and think we have a legitimate chance at making a run for the title,” Vick said. “I think the biggest thing for us will be just taking one game at a time and believe in each other and develop that team chemistry because that’s what makes a great team. We all know that.

“We’re getting there, it’s starting to come together and I think the more reps we can get together the better off we’re going to be. We’ve got from now until Sept 10 to get ready and that’s what we’re going to be doing.”

Now content with stardom and the level of talent around him, Vick has invested some of his free time into taking care of business off the field as well. He recently agreed to a three-year exclusive deal with Georgia-based Radtke Sports, Inc. The terms of the deal were not disclosed, but both parties insist it’s a win-win situation for them as well as Vick’s huge fan base. Radtke Sports, Inc. will have the exclusive rights to all of Vick’s jerseys, pants, helmets and shows, with Vick expected to make more public signing appearances than he has in the past.

“We just met at a signing in Atlanta in 2004 and I had told him I had done a lot of stuff with Brett Favre and later we exchanged phone numbers and that’s how it all got started,” said Rick Radtke, who also has an exclusive deal with Favre        (www.brettfavreautographs.com). “We’ve done a couple signings with him where he was signing some of his game-used playoff stuff and I think just being local kind of helped, too. So we just kind of hit it off and got along with each other really well.”

While Vick remains confident in his own abilities and of those around him, don’t think for a minute that the whispers of his ineffectiveness have gone unnoticed. After bursting onto the NFL scene with more hype than a summer blockbuster, Vick is now getting mixed reviews by NFL personnel, with some in the belief he’s ready for a breakthrough season and others contending he’s already peaked.

Vick has shown flashes of brilliance and was selected to the Pro Bowl in 2002, 2004 and 2005, but critics continue to label him as a one-dimensional quarterback who lacks the leadership skills to get the Falcons to the top.

While the former Virginia Tech standout understands he doesn’t conform to the pure drop-back passer mold the NFL has been accustomed to for the past 25 years, he isn’t about to abandon the unique style in an effort to please his pundits.

“The legacy that I’m trying to develop and leave after the game of football, it’s bigger than life and bigger than anything I’ve done in life besides having kids,” Vick said. “I’m not the prototypical quarterback and people see me as a new-generation quarterback and hopefully young kids will see me play and try and emulate my style and want to be like Mike Vick and look at me as a role model.”

Despite the three trips to Hawaii and countless jaw-dropping SportsCenter highlights, Vick’s ability to excel as a pure passer is regularly questioned by both those in the media as well as many disgruntled fantasy football participants. But it wasn’t always that way. Vick’s ability to produce big plays as a runner in the open field has never been questioned and his ability to be an effective passer was never a problem during his impressive, albeit short, college career.

After excelling in baseball, basketball and football as a teen (Vick was drafted by the Colorado Rockies in the 30th round of the 2000 MLB draft despite having not played baseball since the eighth grade), Vick began to solely concentrate on football in ninth grade and it immediately started to pay dividends. As a freshman at Ferguson High School in Newport News, Va., Vick threw for more than 400 yards in one of his first games under center. He moved on to nearby Warwick High School after Ferguson was shut down in 1996, but despite the change in scenery, Vick’s prowess on the field continued. A three-year starter at Warwick High School under coach Tommy Reamon, Vick finished his prep career with 4,846 passing yards and 43 touchdowns, adding 1,048 yards and 18 scores on the ground.

From there, Vick moved on to star at Virginia Tech where he quickly established himself as one of the most entertaining players in college football. In his first college start as a redshirt freshman, he electrified the Hokie faithful by scoring three rushing TDs in a little more than a quarter’s worth of action.

The following year, Vick led the Hokies to the National Championship game where they dropped a 46-29 decision to Florida State in the Sugar Bowl. Despite a valiant effort by Vick who threw for 225 yards and one TD and ran for 97 yards and a score, Virginia Tech was unable to hold off a powerful Seminole team after rallying to a 29-26 lead late in the third quarter.

“‘We did everything in our power we could, but that wasn’t good enough,” Vick said after the game. “They know how to come back, too. They are the No. 1 team in the nation.”

In addition to his impressive Sugar Bowl performance, Vick led the nation with an eye-opening 180.4 passing efficiency rating. The mark was not only the best in all of college football that year it was also the second best all-time. The dream season culminated with Vick’s third-place showing in the 1999 Heisman balloting, finishing behind Georgia Tech’s Joe Hamilton and runaway winner Ron Dayne of Wisconsin.

After the strong-armed lefty’s college success he applied for early entry into NFL Draft. The Falcons were so enamored with his freakish abilities which included the ability to throw a football 80 yards in the air and world-class speed (Vick posted a 4.125 40-yard dash time prior to the draft), that the team traded fan-favorite receiver Tim Dwight to the Chargers for the No. 1 pick.

When Atlanta selected Vick, he became the 11th quarterback selected with the top overall pick since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970 and the first African-American quarterback ever taken with the No. 1 overall choice. Pretty lofty achievements for anybody to live up to, especially a wide-eyed 19-year-old.

Five seasons and several NFL records later and Vick continues to hone his craft in an attempt to not only silence the critics but to grow as a player as well.

“I’m just looking to make plays however I can, whether it’s with my arm or my legs,” Vick said. “I’ve been working on trying to make sure I protect the football and keep the ball in our hands and out of the defenses.’ Everything is good, I can’t complain. I just knock on wood and hope to continue to have God on my side and keep me healthy for the entire season.”

Unlike the world of television commercials where you can simply reshoot a scene gone bad, there are no do-overs in the NFL. But if Vick could start his career all over again with the knowledge he has now, he had a couple of things he would do differently.

“Study, study, study is the best advice I could give anybody. That’s what it is, man. As long as you are constantly studying your playbook you give yourself a chance to understand it, get comfortable and know what you’re doing when you get out there on the field,” Vick said.

“I would just spend more time in the film room, more time working on learning the playbook. It was a hard system that I came into with coach (Dan) Reeves, so I would spend more time around the building and try and make sure I have a good grasp of what was going on so I could be more comfortable with everything. I didn’t start right away, I took a back seat to Chris Chandler and took advantage of that situation, but I wish I could have been a starter earlier.”

Heading into his third year of learning the West Coast Offense, Vick’s latest challenge will be adapting to the subtle changes associated with the team’s change in quarterback’s coach. Atlanta replaced Mike Johnson with West Coast veteran Bill Musgrave and so far so good according to Vick.

“I think it’s going to be good for us, but you never know until you start playing for real. I believe in Bill Musgrave the same way I believed in Mike Johnson. I believe coach (Greg) Knapp (Falcons’ second-year offensive coordinator), so we’ll just have to get out there and see what happens.
“I haven’t noticed too many differences between the two of them. Their both very talented and their both very into their work,” Vick said. “I can’t sit here and make a comparison between the two, but I can say they’re both great coaches.”

As for those who continually doubt him and suggest he might be a better running back or wide receiver, their negativity only serves as further motivation to reinvent the quarterback position.

“I get criticized every day. I don’t think certain people believe in what I can do and I honestly think some people just don’t like me,” Vick said. “But that’s the way it is. That just makes me want to prove them wrong even more. I like to get people mad at me (laughing).”

When it’s all said and done and the final scene is shot on his career, the smart money is on Vick getting the last laugh yet again.

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