In 2005, Michael Vick became the richest player in NFL history. At the time, the contract was controversial. Though Vick had piloted the Atlanta Falcons to an NFC Championship game, 10 years and $130 million seemed rich for a quarterback who had shown questionable decision-making and who had never thrown for even 3,000 passing yards.
Falcons owner Arthur Blank was among the many who felt otherwise. Vick, his proponents claimed, was a unique talent. He had the sort of athleticism and playmaking creativity that defied traditional statistical analysis. By standard metrics, Michael Vick was an average quarterback. By overall offensive production, he was better than average. By any measure of public fascination, merchandise sales, or sheer quality of entertainment, he was unmatched.
In early 2005, Blank was not purchasing the 2,900 yards Vick threw for in 2002, nor even the 1,000 he would rush for later that year. No, Blank was purchasing the right to own and host what a Nike ad once termed “The Michael Vick Experience,” the rollercoaster of speed, agility, and creativity that made a league of phenomenal athletes look like decidedly pedestrian talents. Vick wasn’t being paid to be the best; he was being paid to be the most thrilling.
In 2008, Michael Vick filed for bankruptcy. He had lost everything in three and a half years. At one time, he had been among the best-loved athletes in any sport. At one time, people had debated whether he would ever truly be great. In 2008, the only debate seemed to be which he was more of: poor, or reviled. In his bankruptcy hearings, Vick promised to repay his debts. He said he would play in the NFL for 10 more years. He said he would earn tens of millions of dollars.
It seemed a bit sad, really. Athleticism like his certainly doesn’t disappear, but it seemed fair to assume it might fade. He was going to be a 30-year old former athletic phenom who previously had seemed to grasp neither passing in the NFL nor the dedication necessary to fulfill his harrowing potential. When he signed with the Philadelphia Eagles for the 2009 season, many felt his contract was artificially bloated; they believed that he would never see the second year of it, that the absence of guaranteed money would allow the Eagles to cut ties with a washed-up former star.
Absent one long pass and a nice scamper or two, Vick did nothing to dispel those beliefs. Many were surprised when, in March, the Eagles signed a check for $1.5 million to keep Vick, an expensive sum for a quarterback trapped between the franchise’s face, Donovan McNabb, and its future, Kevin Kolb. Vick, it would seem, had become an odd sort of luxury, an interesting item to be periodically put on display and admired, but an item with little intrinsic value.
On Tuesday, Michael Vick became the quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles. The improbability of this fact cannot be overstated. He is not merely replacing Donovan McNabb; he is replacing the chosen replacement of Donovan McNabb. In a city renowned for its boisterous and partisan fans, Vick has captured a great deal of support. More importantly, he has captured the support of the Eagles’ coaches and players. Though such a thing would have been impossible without Kolb’s struggles and concussion, Vick’s rise transcends Kolb’s undoing.
Indeed, Vick has been remarkable through the better part of two games. He led an improbable comeback bid against the quality defense of the Green Bay Packers, rushing for over 100 yards and demonstrating the sort of athleticism that hasn’t been seen behind center since his own 2005 season. Then, he shredded the Detroit Lions, working mostly from within the pocket. So far this season, he has completed 63.8 percent of his passes, easily his best pace ever. Perhaps more impressive, he is averaging nearly 8.0 yards per pass attempt, a figure that would mark a whole yard’s improvement upon his former career best. If he maintains his current pace, he will throw for over 3,500 yards while rushing for over 1,000. If he maintains his current pace, he will have a season unlike any ever recorded by a quarterback.
There are a lot of reasons that may not happen. He may regress somewhat in his play. He may face defenses better than the Lions’, or better-prepared than the Packers (who expected Kolb). He may get hurt, an issue that plagued him in his former NFL life. Yet, there are lots of reasons to believe that he might maintain that pace. If Michael Vick 2.0 is not as fast, agile, explosive and elusive as Michael Vick 1.0, then that makes Old Vick the precisely one quarterback that exceeds New Vick in any of those categories. He is working in an offense that has a much better passing pedigree than any of his old Falcons teams. He is working behind an offensive line that is probably superior. With DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Brent Celek, LeSean McCoy, and the underrated Jason Avant, Vick has a whole lot more to work with than Alge Crumpler and a Roddy White who was then less than half as good as the Roddy White you drafted in fantasy this year.
Most important of all, coaches, teammates, and Vick himself say that prison taught him to get serious. While he once ate and exercised how he liked, he now follows a strict regimen. While he once was lazy and dependent upon his talents, he now studies films to find the opposition’s weaknesses. While he once did commercials, he now works on timing with receivers. Vick may not be 31 years old; he may be 31 years mature.
Vick is returning to the league at exactly the right time. The proliferation of spread sets, shotgun offenses and quick runners who can expose defensive sub-packages all speak of a general movement towards the components (once called “gimmicks”) of the college game. Athletic quarterbacks like Vince Young, Dennis Dixon and Josh Johnson have found some success as dual threats at the professional level. Ohio State’s Terrell Pryor promises to be the next great dilemma. Forgotten, it seems, is the man who once was going to determine whether anyone could ever be both am elite passer and runner. Forgotten, it seems, is the man who once electrified the league. Forgotten is the “Michael Vick Experience.” But with perhaps nine more years and perhaps tens of millions more dollars ahead of him, Vick may finally remind us why he finished that Nike ad by wryly stating, “That’s not in the playbook. But it should be.”
Colin Christman is a senior in Saybrook College.