Three weeks into the 2010 NFL season, one of the biggest stories is Michael Vick, and this time he's making headlines for all the right reasons.
Since emerging as a star quarterback with Virginia Tech a decade ago, Vick has had enough ups and downs to warrant a miniseries. He was a top NCAA player, then the No. 1 pick of the 2001 NFL draft by the Atlanta Falcons. He was a riveting quarterback who had a rifle arm, but with his speed and elusiveness, he became a highlight-reel regular for his electric runs. He made the Pro Bowl three times, even as NFL eggheads pointed out that he wasn't an efficient quarterback.
Then, three-and-a-half years ago, he was implicated in an illegal dogfighting circuit. He pleaded guilty to felony charges, served 21 months and was suspended by the NFL. After doing his time, he was reinstated by the NFL in Week 3 of the season last year, but he was the third quarterback of three with the Philadelphia Eagles.
He moved up a notch after the Eagles traded incumbent starter Donovan McNabb to the Washington Redskins. Then, in the very first week of the season, he was thrust into the starting role when quarterback Kevin Kolb suffered a concussion. Vick's performance since then has been nothing short of amazing. In Week 1, he led a rally that fell short in a 27-20 loss to the Green Bay Packers. In Week 2, Vick quarterbacked his team to a 35-32 win over the Detroit Lions. Then, last Sunday, he threw three touchdown passes and ran for another in an Eagles 28-3 romp over the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Vick has led winning teams before — his 2004 Atlanta Falcons went to the NFC Championship game — but this time it's how Vick is winning. He's become the quarterback that the pundits thought he couldn't be: He's played smart and efficient football. Vick has completed 60.8 percent of his passes, and his 8.3-yards-per-pass attempt is startling.
During his six seasons as a signal caller in Atlanta, Vick never completed more than 55 percent of his passes in a season and topped 6.5 yards per attempt only once, in his second year. He has thrown six touchdown passes and no interceptions. In six years with the Falcons, he threw for 71 scores and was picked off 52 times.
The Michael Vick of Atlanta vintage was capable of throwing a laser that would split two defenders and land in the hands of a receiver running full speed toward the end zone, but he was just as likely to overthrow an open receiver 8 yards downfield on third-and-five or toss the ball right to an awaiting defender. When the pass rush closed in on him, Vick was capable of pulling the ball down and breaking a 30-yard run, with six or seven defenders missing him along the way. But he was just as likely to take off and get tackled at the line of scrimmage while ignoring open receivers downfield.
This Michael Vick is different. His poise was particularly evident on his second touchdown pass in Sunday's game. Time was running out in the first half, and the Eagles were at the Jaguar 16-yard line. As the rush closed in, Vick went through his progressions, checking each of three receivers downfield before finding Jeremy Maclin for a 16-yard touchdown.
During his Falcon years, Vick would likely have tried to run or force a hurried throw toward a covered receiver. Vick hasn't abandoned his scrambling, the part of his game that made him such a highlight-clip staple and had some people thinking that he could revolutionize the position. He has amassed 170 yards on 23 carries (his 7.4 yards per carry is just above his career average of 7.2), but he is more judicious about when he abandons the original play.
Some of the change can be attributed to Vick's new coach, Andy Reid. Reid has mentored two other mobile quarterbacks, McNabb and Brett Favre. The other key is the Philadelphia offensive line, which is better than anything Vick had in front of him in Atlanta.
The naysayers will point to the weak opposition. Jacksonville has been in a tailspin since late last season. Detroit is still crawling out of the wreckage of its 0-16 season in 2008, and Green Bay had a healthy lead when Vick entered that game. The Eagles are scheduled to encounter some stout defenses, and many teams are already devising coverage schemes intended to confuse Vick.
His first test comes this weekend when McNabb and the Redskins travel to Philadelphia, and another will occur in three weeks when the Falcons go visit Philadelphia. Given his past, each Sunday will be a test for Michael Vick. But he's passed his first three with amazing panache, and he's created the best story line of this young NFL season.
Martin Johnson is a frequent contributor to The Root.