I had a scenario in my head for what Michael Vick’s return to football, following a two-season absence would look like. I figured the former Atlanta Falcons QB—after spending 18 months behind bars for dog fighting—would serve a portion of his current six-game suspension while remaining unsigned by an NFL team. Then about a month into the season, after some quarterback gets injured and his backup proves ineffective—and this situation will face at least one team this year, it always does—the team in need of a signal caller would turn to Vick. I imagined that this would work best for all parties: Vick would maximize his value; the other team would be turning to Vick when all other options failed.
Ah well, so much for logical forecasting. Vick signed late Thursday with the Philadelphia Eagles and prompted big, jagged question marks into the thought bubbles of nearly everyone associated with pro-football. Of the 32 NFL teams, the Eagles seemed like the least in need of Vick’s services. Pundits all over the sports world will spend this weekend channeling Easy Rawlins trying to get to the bottom of this move.
The first step toward making this move so confounding is that the Eagles have a quarterback, Donovan McNabb. McNabb has been the starting quarterback in Philadelphia since 1999, and although his tenure with the Eagles has been rocky at times—he was benched during a particularly bad performance against the Baltimore Ravens last season—his stock is near an all-time high. He rebounded from the bench to lead the team to the NFC Championship game. He received a hefty raise this winter.
The second aspect that makes this move unusual is that the Eagles aren’t prone to making publicity stunt personnel moves (which is in stark contrast to their division rivals, the Dallas Cowboys). In addition, the Eagles may be the best team of the decade to not win a Super Bowl. The fan base and the team are in win-now mode; they wouldn’t make this sort of move unless it made football sense.
This is where the plot thickens. Vick has been a much better highlight-reel icon than anything else. He makes plays that no NFL quarterback in history has made; in Vick’s six-year career he has run for nearly 4,000 yards, more than Hall of Famer John Elway ran for in 16 campaigns. The problem with Vick is his passing. He lacks the pinpoint accuracy required of an NFL starter. In his career, Vick has only completed 53.8 percent of his passes. That’s a stark contrast to Elway’s 56.9 percent. But that isn’t a fair comparison; Elway’s skills dwarf most signal callers. Vick’s 53.8 percent ranks him behind Rex Grossman, who in my neck of the woods—yes, I’m a Bears fan—is the lead standard for poor passing. But Grossman completed 54.2 percent of his passes, and both he and Vick have comparable rates of interceptions.
Eagles Head Coach Andy Reid has a good history with mobile, gun-slinging quarterbacks. As an assistant coach with the Green Bay Packers in the early ‘90s, he helped turn Brett Favre from a tangle of interesting skills into a Hall of Fame-bound quarterback. And as head coach, he mentored McNabb, who may not be bound for Canton, Ohio, but has had a distinguished career. The Eagles run a variation of the West Coast offense that Vick had his most accurate season with in Atlanta, so there is the possibility of a good fit should he need to put Vick in the quarterback spot. But that’s probably a Plan B at best.
I think the Eagles will be utilizing Vick in a variety of ways that capitalize on his single biggest unassailable skill, open-field running. I suspect we will see Vick lined up as the slot receiver in three receiver packages. This will force the defense to overload that side of the field to prevent a screen pass to Vick from turning into a big gain. This could lead to mismatches on the other side of the field that McNabb can easily exploit. In addition, I imagine that the Eagles’ offensive brain trust is drawing up reverses and flea flickers with Vick handling the ball. Lastly, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Eagles run a wishbone offense in some short yardage situations.
Lastly, as I mentioned once before, Vick could be a dynamic kick-returner. He has few peers when it comes to open-field running, so why not put him in an open field and let him run? Vick awaiting punts and kickoffs might inspire the same level of fear that Devin Hester did during his first two seasons, when he scored 12 touchdowns on 153 return opportunities. Vick’s mere presence in that capacity could turn the Eagles’ kick-return units into one of the best in football.
Unlike the AFC, where New England figures to be the team to beat (as long as QB Tom Brady stays healthy), the NFC is a wide open race. By adding Michael Vick to their roster, the Eagles give themselves several options that may provide an advantage in a highly competitive situation. They will have to think outside the box to maximize those advantages, but it is unlikely that they would have offered Vick a contract if they were stuck in conventional wisdom.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.