For the last two months, Atlanta's left-handed quarterback Michael Vick has been the hottest player in the NFL and the best of all time potentially. Some of us have been suggesting that he already is.
Yet, even though Vick has the Falcons up to 8-3-1 now, the Fox network, which televises the NFC's Sunday games, has only once presented him nationally.
In a dog-eat-dog TV era, that is sad programming. But it's about to end.
Atlanta plays at Tampa Bay in the televised game of the week Sunday, and in that one, after battering eight other defensive teams, Vick will again confront the NFL's best defense. It stopped him last time, 20-6, on Oct. 6. Was that fluke or harbinger? Or did Minneapolis see the real Vick last week when, incredibly, he ran for 173 yards and passed for 173 more? That day, nationally, Fox televised the Chicago Bears instead of Vick. The Chicago Bears! Is everyone at Channel 11 asleep?
Bucs' Front Four Too Tough
THIS IS MUCH too early in Vick's career to have to face a defense as solid as Tampa Bay's with a division title (and perhaps a Super Bowl shot) on the line. An NFL sophomore, the 22-year-old Vick has been a starter only since September. Moreover, Vick's coach, Dan Reeves, remains an implacable conservative in a league that otherwise has steadily, if slowly, been opening up. To beat Minnesota at Minnesota in overtime, 30-24, Vick got his 173 passing yards in only 28 attempts — by comparison with the Vikings' 43 pass attempts. And he produced his 173 rushing yards on 10 runs, by comparison with the Vikings' 32 runs.
Tampa's offense with new Coach Jon Gruden is as weak or weaker than last year's with Coach Tony Dungy. But the defensive force that Dungy left Gruden is still in place, and that's Vick's problem. Specifically, the problem is that the front four Buccaneers — Simeon Rice outside, Warren Sapp inside, and the others — are so effective that they rarely need blitzing help. Thus, there are almost always seven pass-defense experts well-positioned in the secondary to blanket Vick's five receivers or to collar Vick himself if he takes off on the kind of 46-yard jaunt that beat Minnesota in overtime. If Vick can win this one, his road to the Super Bowl will be wide open.
Vick's Quicksilver Mobility
BECAUSE SO FEW football fans have ever seen Vick, they often ask, what's he got? What's different about him that makes Vick the best football player ever born? Opponents point to what they call his escapability, a word not yet in the dictionary though its meaning is plain.
In the pocket, he has the quickness and speed to escape from sack-minded defensive players at the instant they appear to have him. In other words, his foremost asset, condensed to one phrase, is quicksilver mobility.
Somewhat strangely, Vick is short-statured for a quarterback. He stands only 6 feet, if that. He's also undersized for a modern runner, going only 215 pounds, if that. Yet these are doubtless two reasons for his unearthly quickness and speed. You can't match Vick's agility if you're a 6-foot-5 passer like USC's Carson Palmer or a 230-pound running back like Miami's Ricky Williams.
Born Running Back at Quarterback
IN NATIVE FOOTBALL talent, the thing that's unique about Vick is that he can throw a football hard, straight, near and far despite the obvious truth that he's a born running back. On a major college team in the 1920s or '30s, in an era when they didn't pass much, he would have been an All-American halfback. They would have been comparing his speed, ability and versatility to that of Red Grange.
Vick's problem is the conservatism of his coach. On every first-down play, Reeves would prefer to run one of Atlanta's running backs although, in strategic terms, Vick isn't best suited for that kind of football. Rather, he's the personification of a passing quarterback who, on first-down scrambles in a pass-first offense, would run even farther than he does now. Much farther.
The cross that Vick keeps bearing these days on second or third and long is that Reeves, after first-down runs fail, has no choice but to call pass plays. And whenever such plays are imminent on second or third down, every opponent gets into its strongest pass defense.
In game after game, as a consequence, it's the young quarterback's talent that gets the job done, not Atlanta strategy. He is hindered by that strategy, not helped.
Namath Created the Super Bowl
JUST IN TIME for the Christmas marketing season, a veteran NFL executive, Don Weiss, is out with the definitive Super Bowl book, "The Making of the Super Bowl," which Weiss subtitles "The inside story of the world's greatest sporting event." (McGraw-Hill $24.95.)
As chief operating officer of all 36 of the "world's greatest" games to date, Weiss, whose co-author was Chuck Day of Miami, points to quarterback Joe Namath's upset victory over the old Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III as the one that "established the game's credibility."
The Colts, 18-point favorites, lost to the New York Jets, 16-7, on that 1969 day in Miami's Orange Bowl when Namath called every play for the Jets' offense — the achievement that put him in the Hall of Fame. Some of us still rate him the best passer yet, better than Norm Van Brocklin, better than Dan Marino, better than Vick.
Weiss says that heading into Super Bowl III, the great fear among NFL owners and executives was that a rout by the NFC-champion Colts — following two lopsided wins by NFC-champion Green Bay in Games I and II — would establish the AFC as indubitably inferior, thus wrecking the so-called championship game as an annual event worth watching. Accordingly, it was Namath who made the Super Bowl what it is.
Rozelle Didn't Want the Merger
THE MOST CONTROVERSIAL section of the Weiss book deals with the 1960s days when the old NFL and the old AFL were effecting the merger that ended their war and made possible the Super Bowl. According to Weiss, the merger was opposed until the last possible instant by the late Pete Rozelle, who was the NFL's commissioner at the time.
Nationally, ever since that historic era, Rozelle has been considered the architect of the merger and the father of the Super Bowl. Not so, Weiss states, adding: "Conciliation was not on his (Rozelle's) agenda."
Instead, relying on former Dallas executive Tex Schramm as his source, Weiss states that a faction of six NFL club owners — among them the late Carroll Rosenbloom of the 1960s Colts and 1970s Los Angeles Rams — had vowed to merge, with or without Rozelle's blessing. Their reason: War with the AFL was costing them too many millions.
Davis, Rozelle Both Wanted War
THE SPOKESMAN WHO was installed to break the news to Rozelle in 1966, according to Weiss, was Schramm, who told the commissioner that the rebel faction would either "pursue the merger under Pete's direction" or "pursue the merger without him." Only then, Weiss states, did Rozelle go along.
The millions in player payments that made Rozelle's six owners rebel had been forced on them by a new young AFL commissioner, Al Davis, who now runs the Oakland Raiders. The Davis strategy: Steal their best quarterbacks and their other good players.
Davis, therefore, was the real architect or contractor of the merger. Although Weiss argues against that, his report shows that the NFL's owners — though loathing the AFL's (and vice versa) — bowed to Davis when faced with unacceptable options: losing their quarterbacks in a bidding war or losing too many millions of dollars.
Ironically, Davis didn't want a merger. He wanted war, not peace. And, Weiss insists, so did Rozelle. It's a dramatic story.
Bears Outpass Packers in a Freeze
THE CHICAGO BEARS are 3-8 in the new NFC North, far behind the 8-3 Packers, but that wouldn't be the case if they'd played the season the way they played in Green Bay last week, when they took the blinders off their pass-offense people.
With Chicago passer Jim Miller in typical good form, hitting nine different receivers, the Bears outpassed Brett Favre and the Packers, 230 yards to 215, on a freezing winter day in Wisconsin.
In their next start Sunday, the Bears will be in tropical Miami, which is a tough place for any team to play. The Dolphins can't win in arctic Buffalo, but they love life in Miami, which means that Chicago won't.
In Green Bay last week, the Bears, with Miller throwing darts, opened a 14-3 first-half lead on a 72-yard touchdown drive sustained on passes alone as the Bears' infamous run-first strategists changed gears. Ten of the 12 calls Miller's coaches sent in on that drive were pass-play calls that kept the Bears moving on the kind of Wisconsin winter day that the Packers say they relish.
Miller, moreover, who has the ability of a top-five NFL passer, could have held the lead with better luck. He lost it only in freak circumstances. After one of his typical long passes had gone true toward its target — putting the Bears on the Packer one-yard line when the only way for Green Bay to prevent a completion was to interfere with the receiver illegally — there was an instant-replay review.
Following the lengthy review, the Chicago people were still on the Packer one-yard line. But they were colder. A lot colder. In reasonable weather, it wouldn't have mattered. But in the Green Bay freeze, the Bears had stood around so long waiting for the instant-replay decision that their quarterback's hands were as numb as those of his center. Together, the two of them fumbled the exchange, whereupon the Packers got the ball and drove it down the field for a go-ahead field goal.
So it was just another defeat for the Bears, who, if they'd allowed Miller to pass that way in the pleasant fall weather of October and November, could have mastered their pass offense in time to compete with Green Bay summer or winter, day or night. Unquestionably, the Bears have the right passer, receivers, and running back. All they have lacked is the right play selection.
The Bears are a living monument to the fear of the thrown ball that plagues their coaching staff. With a pass-first attack — with an offense that passed on first down even part of the time — they could have been competitive in their division this season. For in Miller and Anthony Thomas, the Bears are led by a quarterback and ballcarrier who, like all gifted offensive people, are more successful when their coaches throw on first down. Most of the time. Or half the time. Or even part time.
Five Guesses on Sunday's Top Games
Tampa Bay over Atlanta by three points at Raymond James Stadium for first in the NFC South. Most fans will be pulling for Michael Vick to do it, but Tampa's defensive front four are too good.
Tennessee over Indianapolis by a touchdown at the Nashville Coliseum. If his coach lets him throw, Steve McNair will jump by Peyton Manning for first in the AFC South.
Oakland over San Diego by a couple of points at Qualcomm Stadium. Assuming both quarterbacks are injury-free, Rich Gannon will overtake Drew Brees for first in the AFC West.
New England by a field goal over Buffalo at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro. With better receivers than Tom Brady's, Drew Bledsoe would like to return in triumph, but that won't happen.
Denver by a touchdown over the New York Jets in East Rutherford. Although new Jet passer Chad Pennington can beat most teams now, the Broncos are better all around.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times