Saturday, April 04, 2009

The Fallacy of Michael Vick

It's been a tough week for Michael Vick. The judge looking at his bankruptcy rejected his plan, if you could call it that, for emerging from bankruptcy.

The real problem is this- the only way that Vick can ever hope to pay off his debts is not only to return to the NFL, but return as a marquee quarterback making 10 million dollars a year, the unrealistic figure his agent recently floated.

It's not just about talent. That 10M number wouldn't be realistic even if Vick could prove today that he was in the best shape of life. The problem is that Michael Vick is much more of a risk than a commodity. Assuming he is reinstated by the NFL- act of contrition withstanding, of course- he still will be on a razor's thin edge both with the NFL and the legal system. One misstep could lead to a suspension or even more jail time. And Vick has not, to date, shown that he has either the maturity or judgment to avoid further mistakes.

While it's true a team could structure a contract that took these possibilities into account with a morals clause or a behaviours clause, the real risk is that you'd be risking building your offense around a guy that might not be there for you. Vick has already demonstrated how he can damage a football team, and his absence ironically demonstrated that the Falcons were a quarterback (and a head coach) away from being a very good football team.

And that's Vick's other problem. He was never a very good quarterback. He was never a winner in the intangible way that certain quarterback who achieve greatness (and 10M a season payouts) are.

Oh, the NFL hype machine, and the networks hype machines, were in top gear right up until the very end about Vick. He was going to transform the NFL, and the way the position was played. Every network had a Vick watcher glued to the Falcons feed, waiting for the supposedly inevitable highlight reel play. And when those plays happened, they were force-fed over and over again to the football-watching masses.

Make no mistake. No one was saying Michael Vick the person was going to transform the NFL. They were saying Michael Vick as an archetype for the new quarterback was as a style of athlete, defining the direction the position should take. There's a theory that conventional football, where the quarterback hands off or drop backs and throws the ball, is too predictable, too staid. Your father's football. The NFL has a certain lust, as do many of the network announcers, for the perceived excitement of the college game, with its option quarterbacks and stunt offenses.

So let's look forward in history as we can now, to see how the game was transformed by Vick. What was the state of the offensive game in 2009 and what was the biggest innovation ?

Hands down, the Dolphins Wildcat. The announcers ? Ecstatic. And the quarterback running it ? A superhuman athlete. One of the most mobile QBs in the game. A transformative superstar. A guy best known for his accuracy and quite frankly, his pop-gun arm. Chad Pennington. Now to be fair, Pennington isn't even executing the Wildcat. And for all the attention it got, the Dolphins got into the playoffs with sound offensive fundamentals more than freakish wildcat plays. Pennington showed once again that an accurate quarterback who is facile with the intricacies of the playbook beats a strong-arm every time.

The position, it turns out, was not changed by Vick, or the idea of Vick, or the difference between the way the position operates at the pro and college levels. The reason the college archetype isn't successful at the pro level is because at the pro level the defensive talent and coaching talent both are so much greater that order trumps chaos. And that is a good thing. While many TV announcers have a clear if unspoken affection for the more free-flowing college style, the NFL is a highly scripted and coached environment. The game is no less exciting for that, and the Vick style of play was something that was latched onto as a solution for a problem that did not exist.

Vick's other barrier to riches (or at least solvency) is that he is just not, as the NFL defines it, a very good quarterback.

Two comparisons.

The greatest running quarterback of all time ? Steve Young. What ? No, not Tarkenton or Bobby Douglas, not Randall Cunningham. No, not Steve Grogan (2164 rushing yards, a 4.9 average and 35 TDs). Young ran for 4200 yards on a solid 5.9 yard rushing average and holds the career TD record for a QB with 43. Now, Steve Young the scrambler for the 49ers was the best of all time. That guy with the pirate on his helmet. Let's forget that guy. What really makes Young the greatest rushing QB is the Super Bowl rings. Young is greatest of all-time because he could throw the ball anywhere on the field and deliver it to his receivers- the best in the game.

At the end of the day Young was a great rushing quarterback because he was a great quarterback on a great team. No sane defensive coordinator ever said 'Let's make Young beat us in the air'. So he was able to run out of the pro-set against defenses that had to respect his ability to throw the ball.

Who was the hand-down best rushing quarterback of 2009 ? Matt Cassel. While he ran for just 270 yards and a pair of TDs, he consistently came up with a scramble or two every game that kept the chains moving. He ran for 23 first downs, more than one a game. He also did it without being a great runner. He played in a disciplined offense that defenses feared for its passing game. Cassel will have a hard time finding the same success in Kansas City, which has less talent at the offensive line, the receiving corps, or the coaching staff.

Michael Vick's numbers simply don't merit the big payday, even if his legal problems and behavioural missteps (the double bird ?) weren't issues. His career rating is around 75. His completion percentage is around 53%. Now, he doesn't need to be the greatest statistical QB of all time- again, Steve Young slots in with a 96.6 rating and a completion percentage of around 64. But to make 10M a year you had better be able to deliver the rock on target, on time, every time, and you had better be able to win big games. Poise in the huddle, on the sidelines, and in the locker room would all help as well.

I'll admit, I never saw Michael Vick as one of the most exciting athletes in all of sports. And I'm admittedly old school. I think the most exciting thing about football is when your team has more points than the other team when the clock hits 00:00 as long as you didn't cheat getting there. And playoff wins are more exciting, and Super Bowl wins even more so.

I wish Vick all the luck in the world. I hope he gets his life together. I hope, if its appropriate, that he plays again. But I'm not hoping he ever makes 10 million dollars a year for playing the game that, quite frankly, he didn't respect the first time around.

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