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Sept. 20, 2004: Vick at his best and Falcons suddenly are players
Michael Vick wasn't conning us after all.
As he and the Atlanta Falcons foundered throughout preseason, fans panicked and media doubted. Vick is ill-suited for the West Coast offense, they fretted. New coach Jim Mora will lasso him in the pocket and neuter pro football's most dynamic talent.
Vick, outwardly at least, personified calm. Trust me, he said, and bank on me getting the job done during the regular season.
Two weeks in, Vick appears prescient. The Falcons are 2-0, and Vick continues to redefine the quarterback position.
No, he's not Joe Montana. Heck, he's not even Steve Young. But given time, he may approach their standards as West Coast wizards.
Sunday at the Georgia Dome, Vick played one of his most efficient -- and electrifying -- games as the Falcons dusted the St. Louis Rams 34-17. He approached personal bests in completion percentage and passer rating, recorded his third 100-yard rushing game, and left teammates and opponents shaking their heads.
"My goodness, he's the most exciting player in football," Atlanta fullback Justin Griffith said.
"Our main goal was to put pressure on Vick, keep him in the pocket and make him throw the ball," Rams defensive end Leonard Little said. "Real clear we weren't able to do that."
After rushing for only 10 yards in a season-opening victory at San Francisco, Vick danced for 109 on 12 carries Sunday. Nearly half came in the final 1:06 of the second quarter.
Leading 14-7, the Falcons began at their own 26-yard line. Vick scrambled for 20 yards on first down and followed with runs of 14 and 18 yards, defenders diving at his heels on each occasion. None of the plays was scripted. Rather, Vick eluded pressure and relied on instincts to lead Atlanta to a field goal.
St. Louis (1-1) contained Vick much better during the second half and forged a 17-all tie. But Vick hit tight end Alge Crumpler for 33 yards and wide receiver Peerless Price for 14 to key a 79-yard drive that produced the go-ahead touchdown.
Vick connected on 14 of 19 passes for 179 yards and a touchdown. His completion percentage (73.7) and quarterback rating (120.3) were the second-best of his 23 NFL starts. Not bad for a guy who took less than 30 snaps in four preseason games.
"I'm getting very comfortable with this offense," Vick said. "Each and every Sunday I believe we can continue to get better. ... The sky's the limit."
Silly as it sounds, this was a critical game for Vick and the Falcons. It was their home opener and a skeptical sports town's first look at an offense steeped in quick, short passes. Moreover, Atlanta was facing a franchise nemesis.
Dating to 1999, the Rams had whipped the Falcons seven consecutive times. On each occasion St. Louis scored at least 30 points, and on each occasion Atlanta folded.
Last season was the worst. With Vick sidelined by a broken leg, the Rams hammered the visiting Falcons 36-0, on Monday Night Football no less, prompting team owner Arthur Blank to apologize to fans in a full-page newspaper ad. Sunday, Blank was in the interview room high-fiving his franchise quarterback.
The Falcons' offensive line deserved equal props. Absent two injured starters, the patchwork group yielded only one sack, that in the fourth quarter, and helped Atlanta outrush St. Louis 242-30.
Of course, No. 7 can erase many an O-line mistake, and not just with his speed. In learning the West Coast offense, Vick has improved markedly as a ballhandler, selling fakes that send hordes of defenders in one direction while he rolls out in the other with the option to pass or run. His 2-yard TD flip to Griffith in the first quarter came on such a play.
Griffith, in fact, caught a team-high four passes for 79 yards. A fullback as the leading receiver?
"In the West Coast system, you never know who's going to be the guy to step up," Vick said.
Not quite. In Atlanta, Michael Vick is always the guy.