Why History Overrates Michael Vick

Michael Vick
History seems to overrate Michael Vick.

Louisville QB Lamar Jackson has become one of the more polarizing players in this NFL Draft process. And given that, it’s no surprise that talk about Michael Vick (a natural comp for him) is popping up a lot.

From my experience on /NFL, there appear to be two prevailing opinions about Michael Vick:

(1) Vick was a generational draft talent

(2) Vick had the potential to be an all-time great QB

Personally, I disagree with both of those statements and wanted to explain why to those of you who haven’t already downvoted and written an angry response.

To do that, let’s glance through his career arc.

Vick in college

After a redshirt season at Virginia Tech, Michael Vick burst onto the national stage in an incredible way. He was electric with his legs, of course, but also made huge chunks plays through the air as well. In fact, he led the nation with 11.5 yards per pass attempt. The college landscape was not ready for a player like him. As a redshirt freshman, Vick led the Hokies to the national title game.

The following year, Virginia Tech had more success (11-1), but Vick struggled with injuries and regressed as a passer, both of which would become a theme for him. Over 10 games, he threw for 1234 yards, 8 TDs, and 6 ints. His QB rating dipped 40 points, his completion percentage dipped 3.7% (down to 54%), and his yards/attempt dipped 3.6 (down to 7.7).

Clearly, there was still a lingering question mark about Vick’s ability to win games with his arm. The raw arm strength was there, but there wasn’t a proven track record of him being a consistent or accurate passer.

Vick in the draft

Those concerns about Vick’s accuracy were muted by all the excitement about the virtues that he did bring to the table, including that big arm and speed that the league had never seen before from the position. He blazed a 4.3 in the 40, which would be unheard of before and even since. As a result, Vick became locked in as the consensus # 1 QB in the draft.

However, there are some important notes here:

Vick declared during a weak draft class at QB. In hindsight, Drew Brees was the best passer among them, but concerns about his height never allowed him to be in the top 10 discussions. No other QB was, in fact. The next quarterbacks in the class were both “reaches” in R2: Quincy Carter and Marques Tuiasosopo. So while Vick was the no doubt # 1 QB, it wasn’t like he had to fight out another bluechip talent for those honors.

In fact, the lingering doubts about Vick’s ability to transition were evidenced in the NFL Draft process. Fresh off a 1-15 season, the San Diego Chargers had the # 1 pick. After Ryan Leaf had bombed out of the league, they desperately needed a QB. They signed Doug Flutie to be their starter, but at near 40 years old, he was a stopgap solution at best.

Despite that, the Chargers decided that they did NOT want Michael Vick, the consensus top QB, despite it being a position of need. It’s incredibly rare for teams to do that (outside of Cleveland, apparently.)

In turn, the Chargers traded down to # 5, with Atlanta giving up that # 5 pick, a R2 pick, a R3 pick, and solid receiver/returner Tim Dwight for the honors.

In the context of presumed “franchise QB,” that’s actually a low price tag. Moving up in today’s day and age for a # 1 pick at QB would cost you multiple first rounders. In fact, the Chargers had played that game themselves a few year prior, moving up (fewer spots) to nab Ryan Leaf at # 2. Their compensation for the privilege was similar: their early R1 pick, a R2 pick, a Pro Bowl receiver/returner Eric Metcalf, but ALSO an additional R1 pick which the Chargers didn’t get for Vick. Effectively, Leaf was seen as a more valuable commodity at the time of their draft.

Now, it’s certainly possible that some NFL teams doubted Vick for the wrong reasons: he didn’t play like or look like the typical franchise QB (he was the first black QB drafted # 1). But regardless, it’s fair to say he was not seen to be as valuable or “can’t miss” as other top QBs in the 2000s.

Vick in Atlanta

After an effective “redshirt” year as a rookie, the Falcons locked in Michael Vick as their starter from 2002-2006 and had some manners of success with that formula. Perhaps Vick’s high point came in 2004, in Jim Mora Jr’s first year on the job. The 24-year-old Vick led the team to an 11-5 record and a huge 47-17 win in R1 of the playoffs. It certainly looked like he may be the future of the NFL after all.

But again, Vick’s passing never really improved. In fact, it regressed some from that “high point” of 56.4% completion down to 55.3% and then 52.6% the following year. His yards/attempt lingered below 6.5, and his QB rating dropped into the 70s.

Now, of course, Vick was never meant to sit in the pocket and pick you apart. His transcendent talent was his running ability. He ran for 902 yards in 2004 (at 7.5 yards per attempt) and even cracked 1039 in 2006 (at 8.4 yards per attempt.) That skill set alone made him one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in the league and justified him as a Pro Bowl caliber player.

But that said, there’s a problem with that type of play style in the NFL. Primarily: durability. At a small and slim 6’0″ 210, Michael Vick didn’t have the body type of a monster like Cam Newton. Those additional 100 hits he took a year led to persistent bangs and bruises that would have made it hard for him to rattle off 16 game seasons like other pure pocket passers do. He also took quite a few sacks in the process — 45 in 2004, 45 in 2006. When you play hero ball like that, you’re putting yourself in jeopardy. Even Hall of Fame quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger have suffered missed time as a result of that, whereas the quick-trigger QBs can clean their jerseys clean.

The other issue with that play style is the potential for fumbling. Sure enough, that was an issue for Vick as well. He led the league with 16 fumbles in 2004, a problem that reared its ugly head again later on in Philly (in 2012, he had 11 fumbles in 10 games).

My point here is: there’s a FUNDAMENTAL issue with Michael Vick’s preferred style of play that would probably never have allowed him to thrive for 15 years in the NFL. The “what if?” idea of him never getting hurt is too big of a hypothetical, because it’s almost a certainty that he would have missed chunks of time.

Vick in jail

Clearly, Vick’s NFL career hit a major snag in 2007-2008, when he had to miss two seasons after his arrest for dogfighting.

Again, you may treat this is a “what if?” hypothetical: what if Michael Vick never went to prison?

My counter to that is: he did. And it was his fault. It’s not like the police played eeny-meeney-miney-moe and picked a random kid to throw in jail.

Moreover, character matters when evaluating players or prospects. It’s really hard to quantify “character” or “commitment to your craft,” especially for us layman sitting at home on the couch, but it’s another FUNDAMENTAL trait of a successful NFL QB. If Vick had a problem with his character or his behavior behind the scenes, then that fundamentally limited his potential to be great. In the same way, we can’t separate Ryan Leaf and Johnny Manziel‘s potential from their personal demons: those demons were an inherent part of them (at least, in their early 20s.)

Vick in Philadelphia

After prison, Michael Vick had a surprise second act in store for us after landing in Philadelphia. The most notable year came in 2010 when he stepped in and dominated the league once again to the tune of 30 total TDs (21 passing, 9 rushing) in only 12 starts. As a result, Vick Mania was back! He even became the # 1 fantasy pick on Matthew Berry’s board for 2011.

But once again, Vick ran into his familiar problems: passing regression, injuries, sacks, fumbles. Remember, the NFL wasn’t really ready for Michael Vick’s return in 2010. He didn’t enter the year as the starter, and opponents didn’t game plan for him.

After his breakout in 2010, that changed. Opponents had an entire offseason to adjust to the Vick-led Eagles and managed to do that effectively. The idea that it takes opponents a full offseason to properly game plan for an unexpected breakout star isn’t universally accepted but it’s one that I agree with and even base my fantasy football strategy around

After that offseason of opponent adjustments, Vick’s passing regressed (sub 60% completion again), his turnovers increased (10 fumbles and 14 interceptions over 13 games) and injuries set in again.

My point here remains the same: Michael Vick had some FUNDAMENTAL issues with his QB play that popped up time and time again.

The one legitimate “what if?” with Vick

There’s one argument that I’d concede to the Michael Vick defenders among us. Vick’s ability to win in the pocket did improve (to some degree) with a great coach like Andy Reid in Philadelphia. Vick’s character did improve (as far as I understand it) in part thanks to some great mentors like Tony Dungy following his prison time.

Therein lies the biggest question mark with Vick. “What if?” he landed with a different coach/organization to start his career?

Vick’s first coach was Dan Reeves, who’s actually a solid vet with 190 wins under his belt. That said, he was an old-school guy at the tail end of his career (he never coached after his firing in 2003.) The next coach up was Jim Mora Jr., who was a defensive-minded head coach with mixed results over the course of his career. Even as a college coach at UCLA, he wasn’t able to parlay top QB recruits like Brett Hundley or Josh Rosen into consistent wins.

Vick’s next coach in Atlanta would have been Bobby Petrino, an offensive mastermind who later went on to coach Lamar Jackson at Louisville, oddly enough. Perhaps Petrino would have been the perfect coach to maximize Vick’s game. On the other hand, perhaps Vick’s bad habits were so locked in by that point (and enabled by his buddy/fanboy owner Art Blank) that it would have been too late to change his spots.

Still, that one unknown still remains the lingering question with Vick. Could a respected coach (like Dungy) have mentored him into being more professional from the start? Could a great offensive mind (like Andy Reid) have developed his game to thrive over the long haul? Could he have been a truly great QB with different development from day one?

Personally, I’d still presume the answer is more “no” than “yes,” given those fundamental issues with his play style and flaws in his game. However, I admit it’s still an unknown.

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