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The Polarizing Michael Vick

Unknowable. Infuriating. Impossible to pigeonhole. Is there any way to define the legacy of the Eagles $100 million quarterback?

Michael Vick’s career is like football Play-Doh — an amorphous hunk that you can shape however you want. You could craft a Vick-centric essay about redemption just as easily as one about squandered potential. You could unleash a “Vick was totally and tragically underrated!” argument with the same gusto as a “Vick was the most overrated football star ever!” rant. You could borrow certain statistics to plead his case as an elite quarterback, and other numbers to bury that same case. You could declare with complete authority that “nobody is ever winning a Super Bowl with Michael Vick,” or you could veer the other way and say, “If Michael Vick finds the right team, maybe he could thrive like Steve Young did in San Francisco.”

Vick didn’t need a dogfighting scandal to retire as the most polarizing NFL quarterback ever — it would have happened anyway. Even the process of drafting Vick was polarizing. When Vick declared for 2001′s NFL draft after just two Virginia Tech seasons, Peter King wrote a Sports Illustrated piece headlined “Risky Business,” with the subhead “Snakebitten San Diego will likely cast its lot with Michael Vick, who’s making a perilous leap from college sophomore to No. 1 pick in the NFL draft.” It’s an uncanny piece to reread, like someone sneaked into SI‘s Vault and updated the piece to foreshadow what happened. Certain experts like Phil Simms, Bill Walsh and Steve Young openly worried about Vick’s lack of accuracy, lack of patience, lack of maturity, and his ability to hold up physically throughout an NFL season. Meanwhile, former QB James Harris was gushing, “He could well become one of the greatest playmakers in NFL history.”

The final consensus? Everyone begrudgingly agreed, Yeah, the Chargers can’t risk passing on him, but I’m not sure I’d want him, either.

When Vick couldn’t agree to contract terms with the Chargers, they flipped that pick to Atlanta for the no. 5 and no. 67 picks, a 2002 second-rounder and receiver Tim Dwight, then rebuilt by using no. 5 on LaDainian Tomlinson and a second-rounder on Purdue’s Drew Brees. At the time, we thought Atlanta fleeced the Chargers. Within a few years, we thought San Diego fleeced the Falcons. Really, that was par for the course this century — thanks to sports blogs, message boards, Internet columns, 24-hour radio stations, talking-head shows, three-hour pregame shows and instant tweets, we’ve entered something of an Instant Flip-Flop Era. It doesn’t matter what you thought, just what you think right now (and how swiftly and aggressively you can express that opinion).

Take me, for example. After Vick managed a spectacular playoff upset win over Green Bay in 2003, I wrote that “he threw for 121 yards in Lambeau and it felt like 350,” adding, “Vick officially seized the Barry Sanders Memorial ‘Never bet against him under any circumstances ever ever EVER’ torch from Brett Favre.” After a convincing 2005 playoff victory (his last), I wrote, “The Michael Vick Era always carries the 30-percent chance that something special could happen, like Vick slapping together three straight Pantheon-level performances and carrying the Falcons to a title. Now we’re one-third of the way there.” By December of 2006, I had given up: “Tell me when we’re all agreeing to stop making excuses for Michael Vick. Give me a date.”

I probably changed my opinion on Vick 10 times, and only because Vick’s ceiling dramatically dwarfed the actual results. He carried himself with Iverson’s swagger, threw lefty on the run like Steve Young, scampered around like an All-Pro tailback. We just hadn’t seen anyone remotely like him. Two years ago, a reader e-mailed that a friend had texted during a Giants game, “Michael Vick is Michael Vicking. If you turned off the Eagles game, turn it back on now.” The reader added, “That’s all it took for us to switch the channel in time to see a ridiculous comeback. What other athletes could have their name turn into a verb?” That’s all you ever needed to know about Michael Vick.

You used the word “if” with him more than most. If only he could stay healthy. If only he could be more athletic accurate. If only he had better receivers. If only he had better friends around him. If only. Because of his prodigious athletic gifts, we judged Vick by a higher standard — like we did with Barry Sanders before him, or even Josh Hamilton and Russell Westbrook right now. Anyone blessed with the “deluxe car wash package” gets treated that way; if we don’t like the way you’re taking care of it, you’re going to hear from us.

By the start of his fourth season, Vick was bristling about skeptics and vowing to thrive in a new offensive system. One year later, those same skeptics were lambasting his $130 million extension and saying he wasn’t a real quarterback. After a profoundly unhappy 2006 season marred by a bizarre airport incident — Vick tossing away a water bottle that had a secret marijuana compartment in it — everyone acknowledged that something had gone drastically wrong. Something had to change. We had no way of knowing one of the worst sports scandals ever was looming.

Looking back, there was no better athlete for the Internet era, someone who generated an instant argument whenever we wanted.1 Michael Vick, pick a side … go! Even the legal fiasco that ended his Falcons career, imprisoned him for 19 months, bankrupted him and turned him into a national pariah couldn’t have been more polarizing. People lose their shit when it comes to dogs. When I wrote a 2010 column defending Vick’s post-prison comeback with the Eagles — not his crimes, but his constitutional right to contritely rebuild his life while recapturing a special talent — naturally, it ended up being one of the most polarizing pieces I ever wrote. People either loved it or hated it, with no middle ground. You could have said the same about Vick. Either you considered him a game-breaking, franchise-altering talent or (waving hands robotically) someone who cannot help you contend consistently in the National Football League.

Race hovered over Vick’s career more than we ever wanted to admit. Fellow Newport News native Allen Iverson pushed similar boundaries in the NBA, where certain fans struggled to identify with an African American iconoclast who covered himself in tattoos (a radical look in the late 1990s), braided his hair (that too) and carried himself so defiantly during games. Iverson never wanted to be anyone’s hero, and he certainly never wanted to play “the game” like some of the league’s more marketable stars — he only wanted to play 44 minutes a night, on his terms, in his style, looking the way HE wanted to look, acting the way HE wanted to act, and if you didn’t like it, then eff you. That’s what I loved about him.2

Even if Vick lacked Iverson’s force of personality, he tapped into a similar prejudice — for the first time, football’s best athlete was playing quarterback and inventing things as he went along, and for the first time since Joe Namath, that same person was tapping into a larger cultural phenomenon (this time, hip-hop culture) as he did it. Was the position changing color? Were more Michael Vicks coming? Was that why people seemed to be holding Vick to a higher standard — especially old-school experts, football lifers and talking heads — and holding on to a certain ideal of how that position should be played? Whatever that ideal was, it wasn’t what Michael Vick was doing. He didn’t help the cause by coasting on those same natural gifts — by 2006, he had abandoned any pretense of becoming a pocket passer, rushing for over 1,000 yards and turning himself into a glorified running back. It didn’t work. The Falcons finished 7-9.

You know what happened next: Vick’s life turned into a walking 30 for 30 episode. After hitting rock bottom multiple times, he pieced his life back together, reentered football as something of a pariah, showed real dignity with how he handled his comeback, and eventually redeemed his career with a phenomenal 2010 season (running the West Coast offense flawlessly for Philadelphia, something that seemed inconceivable during his rockier Atlanta days). And just as quickly, things disintegrated again — he crashed to earth last season and struggled mightily these last two months. After another more-than-wobbly performance in Week 8 against Atlanta, everyone expected Andy Reid to bench him for good in the latest episode of “Eagles Scapegoat Roulette.” But with Philly playing indoors in New Orleans this weekend, Reid couldn’t resist giving Vick one more chance.

Did it make 100 times more sense for Philly to start promising rookie Nick Foles he would play so he could build early confidence against that über-dreadful Saints defense? Of course!!!!! What, you thought Reid would make the right move here? He’s been hitting on 16s against 6s for two solid years. (Another reason: You can’t think ahead to 2013 with another quarterback if you’re not going to be there in 2013. Reid needs to win right now. It’s a classic case of a coach putting his own interests ahead of the franchise’s best interests.) But what if that porous Saints defense gets Vick going? Would you rule it out? The reason Reid should definitely start Foles is the same reason Vick might save his career. He might throw for three scores and run for two more. He might lose his job once and for all. He might single-handedly win your fantasy week for you. He might murder the 2012 Eagles season. He’s keeping us on our toes until the bitter end.

All right, so let’s say everything ends on Monday in one of those Michaelvickian clunkers: two picks, a backbreaking fumble, a last-second drive that falls short, with Vick scrambling around and evading two sacks before sailing a last-ditch pass over someone’s head. What will this mean? What will you say to yourself as Vick limps off the field, still untwisting his skinny body from the two 275-pound guys who fell on him? Was he not nearly good as we thought? Was he better than we thought? Was he both?

Before you answer that question, just for the hell of it, here are 20 things you may or may not know about Michael Vick:

1. He’s one year younger than Drew Brees and one year older than Eli Manning.

2. He’s the only player in NFL history to average seven yards per carry for his entire career. Only three others topped 6.0: Bobby Douglass (6.5), Randall Cunningham (6.4) and Greg Landry (6.2).

3. He’s been sacked on 8.6 percent of his pass plays, ranking 151st out of the 194 quarterbacks that Pro-Football-Reference measured. Some other numbers: Peyton Manning (3.13 percent), Drew Brees (3.67 percent), Eli Manning (4.53 percent), Tom Brady (4.89 percent), Donovan McNabb (7.09 percent), Steve Young (7.94 percent ), Randall Cunningham (10.14 percent).

4. Vick was drafted 31 spots ahead of Brees. When they play on Monday, it will be Vick’s 100th NFL start … and Brees’s 161st NFL start.

5. Vick’s 2010 passer rating (100.2) was the 60th-highest ever and didn’t account for his superior rushing season (100 carries, 676 yards, nine TDs in just 11 starts) or his creation of the 3,000-675-30 Club (3,000+ passing yards, 675+ rushing yards, 30 combined rushing/passing TDs), which Cam Newton joined last year. It’s a two-member club.

6. Vick’s career passer rating? 80.7 … good for 53rd all time. And yet, 18 current starting QBs have a higher career QB rating than 80.7, including Matt Hasselbeck (82.3), Josh Freeman (81.1) and Matt Cassel (80.9).

7. He’s the only quarterback to rush for more than 5,000 career yards (5,466, actually). Only two other quarterbacks have rushed for more than 4,000 career yards (Young and Cunningham — McNabb came close with 3,459). Vick has run for almost as many yards as Daunte Culpepper (2,652) and Kordell Stewart (2,874) combined.

8. He’s fumbled the ball 85 times, which ranks him 24th all time. Of the top-25 fumblers (all quarterbacks except Tony Dorsett and Franco Harris), he’s the only one who didn’t start at least 100 games.

9. In 2006, Vick became the first quarterback to rush for 1,000 yards (1,039) and tied Beattie Feathers’s single-season record for yards per carry (8.4). He also holds the fourth-highest single-season yards-per-carry mark (2004: 7.5), the eighth-highest (2004: 7.5) and the 10th-highest (2010: 6.8).

10. As far as I can tell, he’s about to become the first NFL player to sign two different $100 million extensions — one with Atlanta in 2004 ($139 million), one with Philly in 2011 ($100 million) — that both fell through within two years.

11. Vick never threw for 3,000 yards during an Atlanta season. Which seems inconceivable until you remember …

12. Vick’s leading Atlanta receivers by season: Brian Finneran (2002: 838 yards, 6 TDs), Peerless Price (2003: 838 yards, 3 TDs), Alge Crumpler (2004: 774 yards, 8 TDs), Crumpler (2005: 877 yards, 5 TDs) and Crumpler (2006: 780 yards, 8 TDs). In 2010, DeSean Jackson (1,056 yards, 6 TDs) and Jeremy Maclin (964 yards, 10 TDs) were the best receiving targets Michael Vick has EVER had.

13. If he throws for 265 yards on Monday, Vick creates the 20/5 Club for QBs who threw for 20,000 yards and rushed for 5,000 yards. It’s never happened before.

14. Those 19,735 career yards rank him 97th overall, less than Jay Cutler, Aaron Brooks, Gus Frerotte, Bobby Hebert and Jake Delhomme, and a few thousand yards less than Bernie Kosar, Brian Sipe, Jeff Garcia and Culpepper.

15. He’s thrown for 120 touchdowns, ranking him in a dead heat for 102nd place with Neil O’Donnell, barely edging Brian Griese (119) and somehow trailing Brooks (123) and Chris Miller (123). Of the seven most famous modern “running QBs” (not counting the new guys), Vick’s touchdown/interception differential (+40) ranks behind Young (+125), McNabb (+117), Cunningham (+73), Steve McNair (+55) and Culpepper (+43), beating only Kordell Stewart (minus-7).

16. He’s rushed for 34 touchdowns, ranking him 150th all time and trailing the leading QB (Young) by nine.

17. Of everyone since 1960, Vick ranks 87th in “Game-Winning Drives” with 14, trailing the likes of Jeff Blake (16), Hebert (16), David Garrard (18), O’Donnell (19), Jon Kitna (22) and Jake Delhomme (25).

18. Out of everyone since 1960, Vick ranks 67th in “Comebacks” with 13, trailing the likes of Trent Dilfer (14), Jay Schroeder (16), and yes, Jake Delhomme (19).

19. Just for fun …

Delhomme: 96 career starts, 56-40 record, 81.3 QB rating, 20,975 passing yards, 126 TDs, 101 INTs, 5-3 playoff record, 1 Super Bowl appearance.

Vick: 99 starts, 56-41-1 record, 80.7 QB rating, 19,375 passing yards, 120 passing TDs, 80 INTs, 2-3 playoff record, 0 Super Bowl appearances.

20. In Vick’s two playoff wins, he threw for 199 yards combined. Michael Vick hasn’t won a playoff game since January 15, 2005, the same month Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston separated.

So it’s all a matter of perception. Comparing him to other no. 1 overall picks, he comes off surprisingly well: If you made a list of the top-five picks from 1986 through 2010, Peyton Manning, Troy Aikman, Eli Manning and Drew Bledsoe would be the first four (in that order), but Vick might actually beat Orlando Pace, Keyshawn Johnson, Vinny Testaverde, Matt Stafford and Jake Long for the fifth spot. Vick also accomplished something relatively dubious that remains somewhat amazing: spending nearly two years in jail, not starting a professional football game for four solid years, then shaking off the rust for his greatest season. When will we see THAT again?

Vick’s 2010 evisceration of the Redskins (333 passing yards, 20 of 28 completions, eight carries for 80 yards, four passing TDs and two rushing TDs) goes down as (a) one of the most electric QB games ever, and (b) along with Bo/Seattle, Favre/Raiders, Campbell/Dolphins and a few others, one of the most unforgettable Monday-night performances ever. In a nutshell, that’s why we always cared about Michael Vick more than he probably deserved — when Vick had it going, it was like watching someone catch fire in a basketball game, only if the player was killing 11 guys instead of five. I loved the symmetry of Robert Griffin III entering the NFL during the same season as Vick’s possible farewell, a mulligan of sorts for everything we ever loved about Vick. For the true football fans, it was never about color, more about someone making us rethink the boundaries of every game we’d ever watched. Third and 10, everyone’s covered … and a quarterback could just take off like it was a delayed sweep and scamper 76 yards down the sidelines like it was preordained? This was possible? This could happen?

Both Griffin and Vick made you feel like you were watching a video game, and really, that’s a bigger part of Vick’s legacy than anything. Even if Tecmo Bo Jackson will always be the most unstoppable video game football character ever, Madden Michael Vick came damn close. Back when I played Madden seasons, I always played the Patriots — always, always, without fail — except for one time in 2004 when I couldn’t resist playing one Falcons season. I wanted to be Michael Vick. And it was like opening up a whole new world. You could throw the ball 60 yards, run like the wind, escape four defenders at once, save any play. You were never out of the game. You could score from anywhere on the field. I remember playing six or seven Falcons games and putting up absolutely outrageous Vick stats — he was leading the league in rushing AND passing — before Video Mike went down on one of those padding-your-stats plays when the Madden computer takes it personally and decides to cripple one of your players.

After the game, they told me Video Mike was out for the year. I sulked for about 20 seconds, eventually pressing the RESET button and pretending the game never happened. Vick finished with the fake rushing and fake passing titles. We went 14-2 and won the fake Super Bowl. You’re probably wondering why I remember something this mundane, and here’s the answer: You always remember being immortal, even when it isn’t real.

And no, the real Vick doesn’t get a RESET button on Monday. It’s the only thing we know for sure about that Saints-Eagles game. Like everything else that happened during the Michael Vick era, you will be prepared for anything and everything. Maybe it’s not the greatest legacy, but it’s something.


This column has been updated.

Filed Under: Michael Vick, People

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Bill Simmons is the editor-in-chief of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, click here.

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