The time may already be here when it's possible to think of Michael Vick, the Atlanta Falcons' young quarterback, as the finest football player ever born.
In only his ninth start as a pro, Vick, a smooth-throwing lefty, will show the Baltimore Ravens Sunday that he plays the NFL game with unique speed.
His quicksilver mobility made the difference in Week 8, when swiftness afoot, combined with his transience in the pocket, led to the 37-35 upset of the New Orleans Saints.
And eventually, when Atlanta (now 4-3) moves past New Orleans (5-2) and Tampa Bay (5-2) to the top of the NFC South — as soon, maybe, as this year — Vick's arm and speed will do it.
On most plays last week, the Saints could see him, presumably, but couldn't catch him. Not often. And when it was time to throw, he threw straight.
Vick Tops in a Lot of Phases
OF THE 32 NFL teams, all but eight have already lost three or more games — a stunning statistic for which I see one overriding explanation:
Great athletes, many of them nearly matching Vick in football talent, are all over the place, on most teams, in most positions.
But every athlete plays better on some days than on other days. Barry Bonds can't hit the ball in every at bat. Emmitt Smith can't score on every run.
NFL players all win and lose.
Vick's edge at an even 6 feet and 215 pounds is simply that he does more things with more excellence than any peer. An accomplished passer who performs with the intuition of a good coach, he scrambles punctually, throws accurately on a scramble, and runs with the speed and talent of an all-pro running back.
Will Reeves Take Full Advantage?
THE NEGATIVE IN Atlanta is that Vick's natural way of playing football isn't really compatible with that of Falcon Coach Dan Reeves, whose conservative instincts tend to inhibit the freewheelers he has hired, from John Elway to Vick. In Reeves' football, you still run to set up the pass.
Thus on first-down plays in the Superdome, relegating Vick to a handoff specialist, Reeves usually asked running back Warrick Dunn to hit the line conventionally regardless of field position.
Vick was born to play another kind of football, pass-first football, even though, after failed runs, he's more effective on second and 10 or third and 9 than most passers. And in the last 2 minutes in New Orleans — with Reeves reduced to no other option — Vick got to play his game on the eight-play field-goal drive that won it.
Starting from his 12-yard line that time with the Saints two points ahead, he advanced the ball with completions or scrambles on every play but one. On that one he spiked it. Then after one last scramble, minor ailments forced him off the field. As the clock ran down while the Falcons milled around with substitute quarterback Doug Johnson, Vick reacted like an experienced coach.
Standing on the sideline, he yelled at Johnson to spike the ball. With 4 seconds left, he did. Then Jay Feely kicked a 47-yard field goal.
Even so, the day's great plays, except for Garret Anderson's majestic two-base hit, were Vick's fast touchdown runs of 3 and 32 yards. He seemed to be Gale Sayers reincarnated.
Most Pro Passers Take a Beating
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN Vick and Denver passer Brian Griese, who, Eastern analysts predict, has the Broncos lined up for the Super Bowl, is that Griese is too slow to avoid the pounding that often afflicts those heavily rushed.
Not long after the Broncos (6-2) impressed the West with a 26-9 runaway at San Diego (6-1), they impressed the East with an easy 24-16 decision in Week 8 at New England, where Griese extended his touchdown-pass habit. He has now thrown for points in 23 games in a row.
But he has been pounded more often than that. Spectators winced again Sunday whenever Griese couldn't get the ball off. On failed pass plays, blitzers and other pass rushers jumped on him as usual until, sometimes, he was completely out of sight. That has to hurt.
By contrast, Vick has a knack for sighting and evaluating the rush and evading pass rushers that keeps him relatively unharmed. In this aspect of the job he is unusual if not unique. Recurrently, Vick accelerates away from danger with speed bursts that resemble those of a sprinter taking off on a spring day. He is, of course, sacked on occasion. But he is seldom punished.
To be sure, Griese hasn't been the year's only statue-like victim of NFL pass rushers. Heavy hits happen to all quarterbacks. That is, at once, one of the best and worst things about pro football, whose defensive players, to succeed, must punish.
But the most vicious hits are reserved for the quarterbacks who aren't fast enough to get out of their own way. Conspicuous examples besides Griese are quarterbacks Brad Johnson of Tampa and Kurt Warner of the Rams. That's why the more nimble Vick should go a long way in this league.
NFL Fine System Pays Off
SPORTS FANS KEEP asking: How much will the NFL have to fine San Diego strong safety Rodney Harrison to make him stop hitting people illegally? Over the years, the league has taken Harrison for more than two-fifths of a million dollars in fines — and still, in NFL games, he keeps attacking unsuspecting and often defenseless opponents.
Most recently, he was suspended for a week without pay — estimated to be the equivalent of a fine of more than $110,000 — for a head-to-head hit on Oakland receiver Jerry Rice. And, the disciplinary executives hope, that will help.
Harrison, by order of the league, will have to sit out a week, presumably missing Sunday's game against the New York Jets. That will punish the whole San Diego defense — and by extension San Diego's many football fans — meaning it would have been fairer for the NFL to have disciplined the guy another way. My recommendation would have been a $200,000 fine and let him play.
The most valuable and important thing, though, is that Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and his associates are conscientiously dealing out strong punishment for illegal punishment.
And that is promoting football both competitively and as a spectator attraction. In almost every game now you see pass rushers approaching the passer at full speed — bent on the sacks that mean so much to sackers financially and to their employers competitively — only to pull up at the last instant if the pass has been thrown.
It seems like only yesterday when defensive linemen and linebackers joined in insisting that in a fast-moving rush on the passer, it was impossible for them to pull up. You don't hear much of that now. They are playing legally now, most of them — and still getting their sacks.
That, however, begs the question. How much will Harrison be fined before he learns to behave? We'll see.
Five Guesses on This Week's Winners
NFL TEAMS ARE more evenly matched this season than ever, making every weekend a guessing game. So let's play it. Here are five guesses on five key Week 9 meetings:
San Francisco to win by 6 over Oakland, the favorite at Oakland Coliseum. The question is whether Raider quarterback Rich Gannon can rekindle his once flaming offense in time to take advantage of the vulnerable 49er defense. The requirement for 49er quarterback Jeff Garcia is to keep holding off the rebounding Rams in the NFC West.
St. Louis by 7 over Arizona at Sun Devil Stadium. The Cardinals are beginning to make some noise with an offense that outscored the 49ers in the second half Sunday, 21-7. But Ram third-stringer Marc Bulger seems more quarterback than Cardinal first-stringer Jake Plummer.
New England by 3 over Buffalo, the favorite at Rich Stadium. In a matchup of former New England teammates, Drew Bledsoe of the Bills is both the sentimental and actual favorite over Tom Brady of the Patriots. What's more, Bledsoe has an enormous advantage in receivers with, first of all, Eric Moulds. The continuous inability of New England's young receivers to get open is what's beating Brady this year. In the ninth week of the schedule, if they're ever going to acclimatize, this is the time.
Pittsburgh by 1 over Cleveland at Cleveland Browns Stadium. Even in Ohio, they expect Tommy Maddox of the Steelers to outplay Tim Couch in this battle of new quarterbacks extending an old rivalry.
Green Bay by 3 over Miami at Lambeau Field. Against the Dolphin defense, Packer quarterback Brett Favre won't have a romp of the kind he's grown used to this season. But the question of the game is obvious. Has Miami, during a bye week, been able to develop an offense capable of scoring a few points?