— Attention, Michael Vick skeptics: It is time to stop holding out.
If you are like me, you adopted a wait-and-see attitude on Vick during the first half of the season. Sure, Vick can stun defenses with his scrambling and create some electrifying highlights. But the Eagles were beating bad teams like the Lions early in the season. We have all seen Vick turned into the scared rabbit on the freeway once opponents adjusted, so we needed a little more evidence that he had changed his playbook-ignoring ways before hopping on the MVP Express.
The past few weeks, including Sunday's 21-point comeback against the Giants, have closed the case. This has been a truly unique season. Vick is a new quarterback.
Vick is so dazzling, and his backstory is so murky and complex, that he is hard to analyze: We either lapse into oh-my-gosh superlatives, or fall back on his "after-school special" redemption tale, or rewind the game film and micro-scrutinize how he no longer takes one step to his left when dropping in the pocket. To really see what is different about the new Vick, you have to dig deeply into the numbers.
The right way to run
Scrambling isn’t always a good thing, even when it results in a few first downs. The old Vick ran so much that the Falcons passing game never established a rhythm. Sometimes, he would escape the pocket and rush for 51 yards, which was certainly productive. But other times, he rushed for 8 yards on third-and-15, or picked up a few yards on second-and-long while wide-open receivers did jumping jacks in the end zone. A game against the Saints in 2006 tells all you need to know about the old Vick: He ran for 166 yards, but he completed just 9-of-24 passes for 84 yards, and the Falcons lost 31-13.
Vick has become more selective — and effective — as a rusher. As the table to the left shows, Vick is no longer a boom-or-bust runner. Nearly 60 percent of his runs gain 4 or more yards, moving the Eagles offense steadily down the field. (End-of-game kneels are not included in the table, which is why Vick has only 81 carries). Those 26 gains of 1-3 yards were more productive than they look: seven resulted in a first down or a touchdown. There isn’t much fluff in Vick’s rushing totals: He is generating meaningful yardage on a consistent basis.
Vick has also been effective in short-yardage situations. He is 6-of-8 as a rusher on third- or fourth-and-less-than-2-yards. He has scored six touchdowns on nine carries in goal-to-go situations. The Eagles have struggled in the red zone and on third-and-short for years, but Vick’s running has added a much-needed element to their short-yardage offense (Donovan McNabb ran well early in his career but wasn’t nearly as effective from 2006-09). Most of those short-yardage runs are not scrambles; they are designed runs, meant to fit within the flow of the offense.
As for third-and-long, Vick has rushed 20 times, converting nine first downs. That’s a solid first-down rate, but the number of rushes is also informative. Vick has thrown 78 third-down passes, completing 46 for 35 first downs. He isn’t panicking in the pocket on third-and-long like he used to: He is staying in the pocket, delivering more passes, and picking his spots when running.
Using all his weapons
When Vick isn’t scrambling, he can be seen on the Sunday highlights throwing bombs to DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin. Vick’s long touchdown throws can be breathtaking, and those bombs to Jackson and Maclin are a major part of the Eagles’ success this season, but there is more to Vick’s game than what you see on the highlight reel. (That is something no one could say in 2006).
Let’s remove Jackson and Maclin from the equation for a moment. The table at the left shows Vick’s passes to the Eagles secondary receivers, including running back LeSean McCoy (who leads the team in receptions), third receiver Jason Avant, tight end Brent Celek, fullback Owen Schmitt and others. The “others” category includes everyone from rookie receiver Riley Cooper to offensive lineman Todd Herremans, who caught a touchdown pass.
The first thing to notice is how well Vick is distributing the ball. The Eagles’ secondary weapons aren’t hurting for opportunities; you don’t think of guys such as Schmidt as major contributors, but Vick is generating first downs by tossing short passes to role players. The old Vick had one or two favorites, such as tight end Alge Crumpler, but even starting wide receivers were lucky to catch 40 passes per season while Vick danced around. The new Vick can even get offensive linemen involved in the action.
The second thing to notice is Vick’s efficiency: He has completed 69.2 percent of the passes he throws to players who are not the Eagles’ top two receivers. Those short passes have been effective enough to produce first downs or touchdown on 33 percent of his attempts, and they have been so low-risk that Vick has thrown just one interception when targeting his second-tier weapons.
The table illustrates Vick’s growth as a passer. He gets the ball to his check-down targets and goes deeper into his read progression before scrambling. Vick has essentially traded three or four scrambles per game for passes to players such as McCoy and Avant. That trade-off has made Vick one of the hardest quarterbacks in the NFL to defend: Teams cannot just flush him from the pocket and wait for him to get flustered anymore.
A multiple-choice headache
So how does an opponent solve the Vick problem? Force Vick to stay in the pocket, and he will distribute the ball to his receivers, some of whom can turn any catch into a big play. Force him to run, and he is still as deadly as ever. The “make him roll to his right” theory sounds great on the pregame shows, but Vick is no longer predictable: When he sees a heavy blitz from his left, he is just as likely to wait in the pocket for Jackson or dump the ball quickly to McCoy as he is to try to escape to his right.
The only thing that has stopped Vick in the second half of the season has been slick turf: cold, muddy conditions at Soldier Field slowed him a few weeks ago, and the whole Eagles offense gets bogged down when receivers such as Jackson cannot twist and turn on a dime. Frozen conditions might not help the Vikings this week — Vick is happy he did not have to play at University of Minnesota on Monday — but NFC foes are looking for any edge they can get. Unfortunately for the rest of the conference, the road to the NFC title probably travels through the one place where Vick is most comfortable: the Georgia Dome.
Maybe the Falcons should move their home games to Saskatchewan. It makes as much sense as waiting for him to revert to his old ways, because that isn’t going to happen.