Updated with Michael Vick quotes from today’s conference call with the Atlanta media.
Michael Vick will start at quarterback for the visiting team at the Georgia Dome on Sunday night. That hasn’t happened before. (He played in the building as a Philadelphia reserve in 2009.) There was a time when it was impossible to imagine No. 7 in a uniform other than the Falcons’, but circumstances, as we know, intervened.
Today’s topic: What if circumstances hadn’t intervened? What if Vick, who took his last snap as a Falcon on Dec. 31, 2006, had remained a Falcon? Would he have he become the complete quarterback he has become in Philly under Andy Reid? Would he have won a Super Bowl as a Falcon? Would the Falcons, in the grand scheme, have been better or worse?
Back to January 2007: The Falcons fired Jim Mora, not least because the offense his buddy Greg Knapp preferred was at odds with Vick’s array of skills, and hired the guy who’d been coaching the Louisville Cardinals. The reason Bobby Petrino was tapped was because it was believed he could turn Vick — who’d already made three Pro Bowls in four full NFL seasons — into more than a glorified single-wing tailback.
The attraction was mutual. In his first week on the job, Petrino admitted he’d been intrigued by Vick since his days as the offensive coordinator for the Jacksonville Jaguars. He and defensive coordinator Dom Capers would sit together on team flights, Petrino said, and brainstorm: “What could you do with a guy like that?”
The only official on-field work Petrino had with Vick was in a spring minicamp, but unofficial workouts had gone so well that Petrino told a fellow employee: “We’re going to average 30 points a game.” (In their 45-year history, the Falcons have never averaged even 28 points a game.)
The week before training camp was to begin, Vick was indicted on federal charges involving a dogfighting ring. He would remain on the Falcons’ roster until July 2009 but have no further role with the team he’d been drafted to lead. Petrino would be gone after 13 regular-season games, fleeing to Arkansas not 24 hours after the Falcons had lost to New Orleans to fall to 3-10. (Earlier that day, Vick had been sentenced to 23 months in prison.)
Would the Vick-Petrino marriage, never fully consummated, have worked? Absolutely. Petrino is no charmer, but he can coach quarterbacks. And Vick, who has since admitted that he didn’t apply himself to mastering his position, would have seen in Petrino the man who could have made him a Real Quarterback. The two would have generated big numbers and won a lot of games. That said …
They wouldn’t have won it all. The support system wasn’t nearly as strong as the one in place today. Rich McKay, now the president and CEO, was then the general manager, and the best that could be said of McKay as Falcons GM was that he had the makings of a fine president/CEO. Yes, he did draft Roddy White and sign John Abraham. He also drafted Jamaal Anderson and Michael Jenkins and Jimmy Williams and the world-class flake DeAngelo Hall. And McKay recommended Mora, who lasted three seasons, and Petrino, who didn’t last one.
It’s possible, if not entirely probable, that McKay would have been kicked upstairs in December 2007 had Vick and Petrino been 13-0. Even if he had, the search for a new GM would have entailed looking for more of the same, not for a snowboarding scout based in Colorado whose initial interview came via web cam. It’s fair to assume that the Falcons wouldn’t have taken a flier on Thomas Dimitroff had they not been reduced to residency along Desolation Row. It’s also fair to assume that, even with Vick still a Falcon, this roster wouldn’t have been fleshed out in the way it is.
The great thing about Vick as a Falcon was that he made you watch. Less great — and this wasn’t his fault — was the sense that the other 52 Falcons were Vick’s wingmen. Dan Reeves had swung the trade with San Diego in April 2001 to draft Vick because this franchise needed a savior: Once you’ve been dubbed that, you can never be just one of the guys. It wasn’t that the Falcons tried to become a one-man team; that’s just the way it worked out.
To answer the often-asked question: No, Matt Ryan isn’t the talent Vick is, but Ryan arrived in Flowery Branch as a better leader. Only in Philly, where he apprenticed for a year under Donovan McNabb, has Vick grasped that his position entails more than making plays. Only under the tutelage of Reid has Vick become a great quarterback, as opposed to a singular talent.
The shame of it is that such a transformation could have happened here. (And let’s not paint Vick as blameless in his fall as a Falcon. He was the one who got involved in dogfighting and who lied about his unsavory diversion.) Vick didn’t have to wait until he became an Eagle to find the right coach; he already had Petrino.
“I think about it from time to time,” Vick said Wednesday in a conference call with the Atlanta media. “If it was meant to be, it would’ve happened.”
Then: “I was very comfortable [in Petrino's system]. I’d picked it up. I just decided to turn the corner a tad bit too late. Who knows what would have happened?”
Petrino might have been the right coach for Vick, but he might not have been the right coach for the Falcons as a group. Had the team not won big, guys would have tuned him out. Had the Falcons not won big, Petrino might well have bolted for … Tennessee, maybe? The epic undoing of the 2007 season — quarterback gone to jail, coach gone to the Ozarks — forced this franchise to reassess everything, and to its credit it not only reassessed but reconfigured. It hired a good football man in Dimitroff, who hired a good football man in Mike Smith.
Had Vick remained a Falcon, he might well have become Dan Marino (although the two couldn’t be less similar in styles) — a great player who couldn’t lift his team to greatness because the team wasn’t all that good. With Vick gone, the Falcons abandoned the cult-of-personality approach and went back to basics. They’re in a good place now. So is Michael Vick.
By Mark Bradley