It’s a great Atlanta sports imponderable, occupying the same shelf as, “What if the Braves had signed Barry Bonds in 1992?” and “What if the Hawks had drafted a point guard instead of a guy named Marvin?” This one is especially excruciating because the principals were actually in place. But reality, as we know, interceded.
In January 2007 the Falcons hired Bobby Petrino as coach. Chief among Petrino’s reasons for leaving Louisville, which he had just directed to an Orange Bowl victory, was his desire to coach a player who, after six NFL seasons, was still the essence of talent untapped. In a conversation his first week in Flowery Branch, Petrino recalled how he and Dom Capers would sit together on team flights when both were Jacksonville assistants and say, “What would you do with Michael Vick?”
And now Petrino would have his chance. Or so he thought.
The first time the new coach met his quarterback-to-be, the issue wasn’t how Vick might fit into Petrino’s system but the strange doings involving the trick water bottle at the Miami airport. When nothing came of that investigation, the two began the process of bonding.
Petrino got the job because he was everything Jim Mora hadn’t been. The previous coach, a defensive man by trade, had hired his pal Greg Knapp to implement the West Coast Offense, the basis of which is short passes delivered quickly. Essentially Mora/Knapp wanted the NFL’s most dangerous man with the ball in his hands to get rid of the ball, which never made a lick of sense then and makes less now.
In 2002, his first season as a pro starter, Vick under Dan Reeves had thrown for 2,936 yards and had a passer rating of 81.6. In three seasons under Mora/Knapp he never threw for even 2,500 yards and didn’t achieve a rating higher than 78.1. At a time when Vick should have become a full-blown quarterback, his lack of coaching reduced him to being a glorified tailback.
Vick has since admitted he didn’t work as hard at his craft as he should have, but part of that might be traced to the realization that he was, at least as a passer, being misused. He had an uncommonly precise game at Miami in 2005 when the he’s-not-really-a-quarterback chorus was in full cry, and afterward he vented to me: “People forget I threw for nearly 3,000 yards in ‘02.”
Petrino should have been the man to make Vick a quarterback. Say what you will about this coach — yes, he’s a shameless job-hopper — but he’s among the best offensive minds in the business. (Note that Arkansas, in Year 3 under Bobby P., just finished second in the cutthroat SEC West and will grace the Sugar Bowl.)
With Petrino as his tutor, Vick was rededicating himself to football. He viewed this as his chance to shut everybody up, and Petrino, who’s famously difficult to please, liked what he saw. He told one associate: “We’re going to average 30 points a game.” (Note: Only one NFL team — New England — is averaging 30 points a game.)
Then it all turned to dust. Vick was indicted on the eve of training camp, which began with the quarterback in court in Richmond, Va., and a plane flying above the Falcons’ practice field bearing a streamer: “New Team Name — Dog Killers.” On Dec. 10, 2007, Vick would be sentenced to 23 months in a jail; hours later the Falcons would lose to New Orleans to fall to 3-10. The next night Petrino was gone to Fayetteville, Ark., where he could be seen calling the Hogs on live TV.
So: It didn’t happen here. But it’s happening in Philadelphia. If we wonder what Vick might have been under Petrino, we need only look at what he has become under Andy Reid. His quarterback rating is 104.3, trailing only Tom Brady. He averages 8.55 yards per pass, second to Philip Rivers. His completion percentage, never higher than 56.4 as a Falcon, is 63.6.
Yeah, he’s a Real Quarterback. The sad part is that he shouldn’t have had to go to Philly to become one. He finally had the right coach here. The right coach, alas, at the wrong time.
Oh, and one thing more: The 2010 Eagles are averaging 28.8 points. Almost the 30 Bobby Petrino had, back in 2007, forecast for a team led by Michael Vick.
By Mark Bradley