Sports Nut

No Passing Fancy

Should we care that Falcons QB Michael Vick isn’t a pocket passer?

It’s not how you play the game, it’s whether you win or lose

Michael Vick has had enough constructive criticism. After a decent, if hardly Marino-esque, game against the lackluster Dolphins, Vick scolded the media throng. “They say I can’t throw the ball from the pocket and my passing efficiency isn’t that good, so I had to show everybody,” he said. “From here on out, I don’t want hear that question again, if I can throw the ball from the pocket and if I can make plays from the pocket. I feel like I answered them.” Vick and his Atlanta Falcons are 0-2 since he put his foot down; perhaps he’ll allow the odd swipe at his arm, so long as the team returns to winning.

Vick will get his chance tomorrow as part of the annual excuse for ignoring your cousins known as Thanksgiving football. While beating the Detroit Lions likely won’t earn Vick much street cred, it should make for some tasty premeal viewing. That is, if a national television audience can stomach his style of play.

Vick’s credentials hardly need enumerating here—he’s probably the most exciting player in all of pro sports. What separates him from even the best running backs is his acceleration when he sees a fissure in the defense. Watch when he eludes the rush and decides to take off—there is a split second of hesitation, as Vick computes pursuit angles, then whoooossshhhhh, and defenders are pawing helplessly at his jet wash.

Yet after the requisite nod to his athletic ability, most talk about Vick centers on what he can’t do: throw the ball around like Marino and Montana. What he can do is win games like Marino and Montana. Since Vick became the Falcons’ starter in 2002, his winning percentage is up there with those of Super Bowl QBs Tom Brady and Donovan McNabb.

The elephant in the room, of course, is race. Trent Dilfer leads his team to the Super Bowl by “managing the game” (code for not screwing up worse than his opponent). Vick wins by playing “PlayStation football” (code for coasting on his natural athletic ability) and gets derided for not being Peyton Manning.

Manning works hard to foster the image that he works hard. Good luck finding a story that doesn’t mention Peyton’s love affair with game film. No one is better versed in defensive wrinkles, no one exploits matchups with such aplomb, no one sees the field so clearly. At the line of scrimmage, Manning looks like a man with Tourette’s syndrome—arms akimbo, patting his guards on the keister, pointing at every defender, bouncing around to every teammate to make sure they are on the same page. He’s essentially the first Hall of Fame dork.

Manning reminds me of that old Jon Lovitz character from Saturday Night Live, the Master Thespian (“Acting!!”). Manning spends a lot of time Quarterbacking!! He wants you to forget that his path to the Pro Bowl was greatly eased by natural athletic ability (check out the gene pool he swims in). It’s the same 99th-percentile athleticism that Vick possesses, just expressed in a different way. Manning makes it seem like every quarterback could throw the perfect deep ball if they only studied harder and gesticulated more wildly.

Even up-and-coming stars, similarly gifted, have bought into the charade. The tale of Carson Palmer and Chad Johnson driving to Indy to study the master at work is now embossed legend. Many an NFL player would make a pilgrimage to see Vick play, but not to study at his feet. They go because Vick is so compelling to watch.  Where Manning is homework, Vick is recess. Apparently, Vick’s critics think the position of quarterback is too important not to be taken more seriously.

Imagine that the Kansas Board of Education ran the NFL, and offenses never evolved past the single wing. Quarterbacks still took direct snaps and ran the ball on virtually every play. In this alternate universe, Vick would be the state-of-the-art QB, Manning the one dissected at length for his unusual approach to winning. Or, let’s just dispense with allegory, like Falcons coach Jim Mora recently did: “When are we going to start talking about when Peyton Manning is going to start doing what Mike Vick does?”