The future of Michael Vick
Cold, Hard Football Facts for Mar 28, 2009
(Ed. Note: A version of this story originally ran in December 2007)
By Kerry J. Byrne
Cold, Hard Football Facts jack of no trades
Dogfighting impresario Michael Vick's jail sentence should end soon, leading to loads of speculation from the pigskin "pundits" about his future in the NFL. Will teams take him back? Where will he play? Will Gridiron Godfather Roger Goodell even allow him back into the league?
Nobody knows if or when Vick might return to the NFL. For now, it's little more than idle talk-show and water-cooler chatter here in the interminable football off-season.
But a study of the Cold, Hard Football Facts could not be more certain about one thing: if and when Vick returns to the NFL – and if common sense prevails – it will be as a running back.
Ideally, he'd return as a tandem back, one who can play the role of the Willie Parker thoroughbred to the Jerome Bettis Clydesdale we saw in Pittsburgh in 2004-05, but bringing to that role some extreme trick-play abilities we've rarely ever seen this side of the advent of the T formation. It's not hard to imagine the opportunities he could create in the arsenal of a creative offensive coordinator.
Vick's performance as a passer, meanwhile – the foundation of pro quarterbacking – has always been well below the standards of an elite NFL performer. However, you could already argue that Vick's one of the great running backs the game has ever seen. This situation, playing Vick at running back instead of quarterback, would allow him to focus on his true strength, running with the football, and minimize his weakness, passing the football.
In tribute to his former No. 7, here are seven reasons why any future Michael Vick redemption story should come with a new jersey number, like 32 or 34.
1. Vick holds the career record for average per rush attempt
Vick bore the title of quarterback, but his most electrifying, memorable and productive plays came when he ran with the ball.
In his six NFL seasons, he cranked out 3,870 yards on 527 attempts, an average of 7.34 YPA. Nobody in the history of football comes close to matching that average. Vick doesn't have the necessary minimum 750 attempts to qualify for the official NFL record books, but his average is so far above and beyond anyone else in history that there's little doubt he would hold the mark after another 223 attempts. The current record belongs to another famous running quarterback, Randall Cunningham, who averaged 6.36 YPA, nearly a full yard less than Vick's average. (The record for yards per attempt by a running back is the 5.22 of Jim Brown.)
To put Vick's average of 7.34 yards per rush attempt into perspective, consider that New England's record-setting quarterback Tom Brady has averaged 7.22 yards per pass attempt in his career.
2. Vick holds the single-season record for average per rush attempt
Remember Beattie Feathers? No? Here's the CliffsNotes bio: he paired with Bronko Nagurski to give the 1934 Bears one of the most devastating ground attacks in history.
Feathers that year cranked out the first 1,000-yard season in NFL history (1,004) on a mere 119 carries, a stunning average of 8.44 YPA that would stand as an NFL record for 72 seasons – until Vick broke the record in 2006 (his last season) when he ran for 1,039 yards on 123 attempts, an average of 8.45 YPA.
Clearly, Vick's average per attempt benefits because of his position. If a quarterback, for example, is tackled 3 yards behind the line of scrimmage, the play is recorded as a sack and counts against his gross passing totals, not against his rushing totals. If a running back is tackled 3 yards behind the line of scrimmage, it is, naturally, deducted from his rushing totals. So quarterbacks (and Vick and Cunningham are the prime examples) certainly have an unfair advantage over running backs in this category.
Still, Vick's brilliance as a runner is evident when you do an apples-to-apples comparison and size him up against other elusive quarterbacks. His average per attempt, as noted above, exceeds Cunningham's by nearly a full yard. Vick's single-season record of 8.45 YPA also blows away Cunningham's best single-season of 7.98 YPA in 1990 which, coincidentally, is the third best single-season average in history (behind Vick and Feathers).
3. Vick was already a glorified running back with Atlanta
The Falcons succeeded with Vick at quarterback not because he was a great passer – he wasn't even close – but because he ran the ball so successfully. In fact, he inspired the Falcons to become one of the most productive running teams in football history. The 2006 Falcons, for example, were No. 1 in the NFL in rushing attempts (537), yards (2,939) and yards per attempt (5.47).
That team-wide average of 5.47 yards per attempt gave the 2006 Falcons one of the five most effective rushing attacks in the entire history of the NFL. And in the Super Bowl Era, only the Barry Sanders-led 1997 Lions were more consistently productive on the ground, with an average of 5.51 YPA.
The team-wide total of 2,939 yards, meanwhile, was the fourth-best single-season output in NFL history.
4. Vick has prototypical running back size
Vick played at 6-1, 215 pounds – almost perfect size for an NFL running back. In fact, he's the spitting physical image of the league's latest superstar ball carrier, Adrian Peterson of Minnesota (6-1, 217).
Vick is certainly tall enough to become a modern pocket-passer-style QB – just ask Drew Brees (6-0, 210) – but he certainly doesn't match up physically with prototypical modern NFL quarterbacks such as Tom Brady (6-4, 225), Peyton Manning (6-5, 230) or Ben Roethlisberger (6-5, 240) ... the same guys who, not so coincidentally, have won six of the last eight Super Bowls.
5. Vick would have to relearn the QB position
NFL quarterback is widely regarded as the toughest position to play in all of sports. Certainly, no position benefits more from repetition – repetition needed to master timing, pass routes and check downs, not to mention opposing defenses, among many other variables.
Quarterbacks simply get better with the more snaps they take, usually peaking in their late 20s and early 30s. Just ask the prolific Peyton Manning or Tom Brady. Manning came into the NFL with all the talent in the world, but struggled to grasp the pro game, as evidenced by his 28 INTs as a rookie. He's thrown a total of 35 INTs in the three seasons since turning 30, against a stunning 89 TD passes. Brady threw 50 TDs against just 8 INTs in the one season he's played (2007) since turning 30. Manning and Brady, like almost every other elite quarterback in the history of the game, turned his experience as a young player into incredible production around the age of 30.
Vick turns 29 in June, an age when productive NFL quarterbacks should be just hitting the peak of their careers. But Vick has missed two straight seasons of pro football – and therefore has missed two straight years worth of education about the quarterback position. It's doubtful he would be able to produce at a very high level, at least as a passer – especially given the uninspiring pass production of his past.
A reasonable GM will probably determine, if he's stuck with a QB who needs to learn the pro position, that his team is better off with a rookie 22-year-old trying to learn the position than a rusty 29-year-old.
However, a body that's gone two straight years without the train-wreck rigors of NFL football could be perfectly suited to make an immediate impact at running back.
6. Vick was never a good passer to begin with
Even if Vick were to return to the NFL and match his previous passing production, it would hardly be enough to inspire confidence in a team.
Vick's major problem as an NFL quarterback has been that he simply does not pass the ball nearly as well as the game's elite quarterbacks. He's never completed 57 percent of his passes, he's never thrown for 2,500 yards and he's never thrown more than 20 touchdowns. And his career passer rating of 75.7 is below average (typically about 80.0) and far below the elite status that might inspire a team to take a chance on him three seasons after he last took a snap from center.
Atlanta's running game has certainly suffered severely without Vick. The team's historic 5.47 YPA on the ground with Vick in 2006 fell sharply to a middling 3.95 YPA in 2007, before recovering in 2008 (4.36 YPA) behind Pro Bowl RB Michael Turner.
However, Atlanta's passing game hardly missed a beat without Vick.
In fact, it improved dramatically in the two years since Vick left football. We all know that Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan was the NFL's Rookie of the Year in 2008. His 87.7 passer rating easily exceeded Vick's best efficiency mark (81.6 in 2002). But the most damning indictment of Vick's passing capabilities is that the Falcons rose from 32nd in passing yards with Vick at the helm in 2006, to 18th in passing yards in 2007, when the team was led by rotating collection of castoff quarterbacks who filled the void in Vick's absence: Joey Harrington, Chris Redman and Byron Leftwich.
The Falcons averaged 5.70 YPA passing behind Vick in 2006, and 5.93 YPA passing behind the back-up all-stars in 2007.
7. Vick's game doesn't work in pro football
Major college football has changed drastically over the past decade, with most teams eschewing run-first offenses for pass-happy pro-style offenses or for the progressive spread offense that's all the rage in the college ranks.
But there's still room for the running quarterback in the NCAA. Simply look at dual-threat phenom Tim Tebow of Florida, or the option offenses that have been employed with great effect in recent years by military academies Navy and Air Force.
But the NFL ain't college football. You'd have to search long and hard through the dusty pages of NFL history to find a running quarterback who won a championship. And those with reputations as running quarterbacks, such as Steve Young and John Elway, were also great passers when they won championships. Young, in fact, is the most efficient passer in the history of the NFL (96.8 career passing rating).
The pro game, in other words, is all about quarterbacking play – specifically, it's all about the passing play of quarterbacks. Teams that pass the ball well win games consistently and win championships consistently. Teams that don't pass the ball well don't win consistently. There's a reason why just eight Hall of Fame and future HOF quarterbacks have won 22 of the 43 Super Bowls ever played (Terry Bradshaw, 4; Joe Montana, 4; Troy Aikman, 3; Tom Brady, 3; John Elway, 2; Bob Griese, 2; Bart Starr, 2; Roger Staubach, 2).
But Vick's Falcons never won consistently because he never passed well consistently. They were 38-28-1 with Vick as a starting QB, but just 15-16 over his last two seasons. In Vick's four years as a full-time starter, the Falcons' average rank in scoring offense was 15th – extremely mediocre, when you have such an explosive weapon on your side.
And Atlanta's greatest season under Vick simply proves the importance of passing. The 2004 Falcons went 11-5 and reached the NFC championship game. Vick, not so coincidentally, had perhaps his best season as a passer in 2004 with career highs in completion percentage (56.4) and yards per attempt (7.2).
Yet in a league in which an effective passing game is always the difference between failure and success, those numbers are not great – certainly not great enough to inspire a team to line up Vick at quarterback.
But those teams should find seven good reasons to line up Vick behind the quarterback.
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