People always look at me like I’m fucking crazy when I tell them that Mike Vick is my favorite NFL QB. They say that I’m living in the past. They say he is a vicious abuser of adorable, helpless animals. In his 13 years as pro (including his two year stint in jail), he’s never won it all, even with IMMESNSELY talented rosters. To this contingency, I say, “Yes. True. You’re absolutely right.” As of the 2014 season, Vick is 34 years old. As the 2nd string quarterback for the New York Jets this season, he may never start another game.
The #1 image that comes up under his name on Google shows a Falcons era Vick in a do rag, giving the camera the grizzle face, and defiantly holding up two middle fingers. This photo was taken during a press conference. To his detractors, this image of Mike is encapsulates everything that’s wrong with him as a football player. More importantly, it’s indisputable proof of everything wrong with him as a persona.
But to me, this photograph only represents the reasons why Vick is ultimately compelling. Look, let’s be pragmatic here. MV has a slightly above average career completion percentage (56.2%), a less than stellar career passer rating (81.0), and during the 2004 campaign, this man managed to drop the ball 16 times. Vick has pretty much averaged double digit fumbles during his most dominant stretches. His only real accomplishment of note statistically speaking is that he is the undisputed king of rushing quarterbacks; he currently holds the record for yards on the ground with an epic 5,857. But there is a story that these numbers aren’t telling.
Part of the answer is hidden in that photo. Anyone who has even casually watched him play the game knows the tangible element to Vick’s greatness, even if his stats are sort of unremarkable from a traditional understanding of the quarterback position.
When he first started taking 1st team snaps all the way back in the 2001 regular season, Vick was a total nightmare for even the most elite of NFL defenses. This is primarily because he solely possessed the skill set and the “this is crazy enough to work” mentality to both notice and actively exploit a major loophole in the fundamental schema that every football team uses to prevent the opposition from scoring points.
A decade ago, a life was relatively simple for pro linebackers when a QB dropped back to pass. Defensivemen could almost always count on two things and one of them is completely situational:
- The QB remains in the pocket and attempts a forward pass
- In the event of a total pocket collapse, the Quarterback executes a roll out to the sideline and attempts a forward pass without crossing the line of scrimmage.
Yes, sometimes quarterbacks who were on the athletic side would try to make a play on their feet rather than electing to throw. The infamous “QB sneak” is a borderline trick play when used on the goal line and a desperation move on 4th and 1. The success of this play call is almost completely dependent on a talented full back and center. Mike Vick unapologetically and single handedly destroyed everything about that basic understanding.
There are undeniably a few developments in offensive strategy at play here that initially seem more revolutionary than Vick on a surface level, but ultimately prove to be mere precursors to the post modern way in which Michael played his position. The wishbone formation used by Texas A&M Coach Emory Bellard, reached its apex among elite college teams nearly four decades ago. It was predicated on the idea that the QB could either hand off to the fullback, pitch to the running back, or take the ball into his own hands and get it done himself. All three of these options take place on the ground.
At the time, the Wishbone was so crazy because it represented backwards-forward thinking. When football was invented, every single play was a war at the line of scrimmage to see which team could outmuscle the other. When teams started to pass forwards, it completely changed the nature of the game. Any person who has watched even one set of downs in modern Football knows that the QB is the most instrumental player on offense and that’s because he’s the dude who throws the ball. In fact, success as a Quarterback is rated and determined by how accurately and how consistently they can accomplish this task. The Wishbone was successful because it reverted back to the original premise of the game after years of evolution.
Categorically speaking, the wishbone is considered to be a “read option” offense. Over time more and more playbooks began expanding upon this idea and reinventing its premise, mostly at the college level. NFL football is not at all the same beast as its NCAA counterpart. When players like Johnny Manziel or Tim Tebow declare for the draft, the eggheads on SportsCenter make a valid point about the major difference between two drastically different ways of playing the same game. It’s not at all uncommon to see miraculous offensive plays in college games that are simply impossible to execute in pro football. That’s why there are so many high scoring games on Saturdays. As a result, all the innovation takes place in the NCAA, but the balance of power is skewed.
Despite major rule changes designed to make life miserable for pro cornerbacks, the NFL is the definitive big boys league in football because of the speed, tenacity, and devastating precision with which even the worst teams play defense. The notable exception to this is when NFL teams started running the read option by introducing the wildcat formation in 2008. It became popularized while Vick was in jail, an entire seven seasons after his pro debut. By the time he got out of prison two years later for staging dogfights, defenses figured out the Wildcat and it became nearly extinct. Unlike Vick’s role as QB in Philly and Atlanta, the formation is run with a halfback under center.
So while there have been some notable strategic deviations from our understanding of a straightforward and traditional pass first offense, each example is still conventional in the sense that there were parameters for running them. They were literally designed to be different by the guys who actually call the plays on the sideline. This is not at all what Vick represents in the realm of pro football. He is the architect of a football strategy that doesn’t even have a definable name. It’s derived purely from something that he just does. And he does it without anyone asking him to.
People have often said that Brett Farve made NFL football look like a sandlot game. Brett was a gunslinger but he still possessed many of the attributes you look for in a QB. Michael Vick took this to another extreme altogether. As I get older, the more I realize that life itself is a chaotic series of absurd events that occur at random and with zero significance whatsoever. Within our society, we have actively created ways to make sense of it, to give it meaning. Football is kind of the same way. The sport is centered on the idea that we can orchestrate a simulation of that experience. From the moment the ball is snapped, twenty-two human bodies of near freakish size and athletic ability fly into intensely choreographed motion from a virtual standstill. The team that can best control the vast unpredictability of this sequence emerges victorious 99% of the time.
Nobody on planet Earth understands the nature of that arrangement more than Michael Vick does. With that knowledge, he makes no attempt to control it. Vick actively tries to create chaos. MV has fucking mastered chaos. If Mike Vick were a super villain, his name would be Dr. Chaos and if he were a painter he’d be Jackson Pollock. If you watch enough clips of his best rushes online, a peculiar pattern begins to emerge. There are certain moments where he gets seemingly bored with the game. In these cases, Vick actually allows the pocket to collapse around him as he bobs and weaves in the backfield. At this point, usually about five seconds after he initially dropped back, the field is a total mess. Linebackers are all over the place, the wide outs have run the secondary twenty yards downfield, and the linemen are falling over each other. Then, something amazing happens. Vick emerges from the wreckage with clarity and purpose. His vision is singular. He knows he’s going to score before he even calls for the snap. It’s not necessarily that he knows exactly how he’s going to do it. These things are decided in the moment.
Football is packaged as the ultimate team sport. Every piece is essential and success is gained from every man doing his job properly. At the same time, the NFL also sells the supreme importance of the Quarterback position as a field general because big offense is where the money is. Michael presented a huge problem for the league and its ideals because he actively exposed that paradox every time he had the ball in his hands. When watching Vick play at his absolute brightest, it actually became possible to believe that this man could beat his opponent’s single handedly. For the first time, the NFL was in a situation where it could have conceivably turned into the NBA.
Sure, DeSean Jackson was a huge target for Vick. The connection between these two guys was the most devastating 1-2 punch in football for a while. In fact, the Vick era Eagles probably possessed the fastest team in history. He had another quality receiver in Jeremy Maclin and an explosive RB in LeSean McCoy. All of these players can run the 40 at 4.5 or less. The result was devastating. No team could score as quickly as these guys could. Often times, they only needed one play. If Chip Kelly came to this team in 2010, they would have won the Super Bowl. But there was something crucial about the way that Vick played offense. DeSean only proved that Vick could throw a legitimate 60 plus yard laser into double coverage. Vick’s greatest moments were that of individual achievement, on the ground or otherwise.
And that’s why Colin Kaepernick and RGIII will never be the players that Vick was and largely still is. They might win more titles, but their status as the poster children for the “mobile quarterback” generation ultimately renders them predictable. They have plays that are designed to take advantage of their athleticism and speed. When Colin Kaepernick rushes for 40-yards in a single carry, I’m impressed only insofar as he did his job properly. Vick is villainized with good reason. He did force adorable animals to fight each other. But on the field, he was an anomaly, a force of nature. He threatened the very foundation of the NFL, one of the ‘cleanest’ organizations in professional sports. He was antithetical to the game and the league. Mike is a symbol of underappreciated greatness.