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Doug Farrar

The Spy Game: Chasing Michael Vick

Doug Farrar
Shutdown Corner

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Ironically, it was the Philadelphia Eagles who first showed how to keep the old version of Michael Vick(notes) under wraps without a pure spy linebacker. In the 2004 NFC Championship game, the late, great Philly defensive coordinator Jim Johnson put together perhaps his most impressive game plan in a career full of wonderful schemes. Instead of hanging his defenders out to dry on islands and allowing Vick to shake-and-bake those guys to death, Johnson sat his defenders in run zones and forced Vick to make his bones as a passer. That wasn't going to happen in an unfavorable climate, in the hostile away environment, and with Vick as the undeveloped passer he was then.

Spying Vick basically took one player out of his defense, so Johnson used his linebackers to spy zones and gaps instead. He understood that the cold weather and biting wind would take the pass away to a point, and treated Atlanta's offense as if it were a 30-year-old Wishbone. Blitz looks were just that -- looks for the most part -- and those extra defenders would pull back to read and cover at the snap. Ends Jevon Kearse(notes) and Derrick Burgess(notes) were directed to read and wait instead of pursuing from the start, and Crumpler had to pinball his way through multiple Eagles just to get open. Middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter(notes) was the scud missile inside, the one who had to find the open gap and kill it. The supposedly blitz-happy Johnson succeeded by going against schematic type.

The Atlanta Falcons of Vick, Warrick Dunn(notes), and T.J. Duckett(notes) led the NFL in rushing every year from 2004 through 2006 with one major weapon: The read-option. It was based on a simple principle - Vick would sprint outside the right tackle, with one or two running backs drawing close by. Vick would read the defensive end. If the end cut inside to anticipate Vick doing the same, Vick ould simply sprint outside. And if the end trailed Vick outside ... well, Vick could either cut inside or pitch to one of his backs, who would then sprint upfield as half the guys on that defense broke their ankles trying to recover. Vick was a "quarterback" in the same way the college speed-spread guys are "quarterbacks" - in name and position, but not really in total intent.

Zone gaps helped, as did the idea of spying Vick -- if you had a linebacker athletic enough to keep up. Derrick Brooks(notes), Anthony Simmons, Brian Urlacher(notes), and Lofa Tatupu(notes) all did well in this regard, with the proviso that if Vick ever really got it together as a pure quarterback, these strategies would be rendered irrelevant.

It took federal charges, two years in prison, and another year back in the NFL as a strategic curiosity backing up Donovan McNabb(notes), but that evolutionary Vick is finally here. In 2010, Vick is first overall in Football Outsiders' efficiency metrics for running quarterbacks (no surprise), but he's also 13th among quarterbacks in pure passing. If you prefer your stats in a more traditional fashion, we can do that, too - Vick currently ranks second in passer rating behind Peyton Manning(notes), he's got the NFL's most passing plays of 40 yards or more with five (this is the most underrated element of his game - Vick is probably the best deep passer in the game right now), and only Manning has more touchdown passes with no interceptions this season than Vick's six.

The transformation engineered by Eagles head coach Andy Reid and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg has been astonishing. Vick no longer bails out at the first sign of trouble; he now uses his mobility to stay alive in the pocket and make those throws downfield. Only when things break down completely (as they frequently do behind Philly's subpar offensive line) does he take off without thinking pass-first. And when he does so, he's every bit as fast as he was five years ago.

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Greg Cosell of NFL Films recently gave me his take on Vick's development, and what it means on the field. "Now, he's moving to pass, and not moving to run. That's a very important distinction. Even the long throw to Jackson on the two-minute drive, where he also stopped ... he had to get rid of that ball a little quicker because of pressure, but he still stopped and set his feet. That was a big-time throw, as well. Even the touchdown to Jeremy Maclin(notes) [against the Detroit Lions] -- if I'm not mistaken, that was a zero-coverage blitz, and there was pressure he could see coming up the middle. But he stood in there and stepped into this throw. When have we ever said before that Michael Vick would look down the gun barrel and make throws?"

The Washington Redskins will be asking themselves this rhetorical question on Sunday, when they travel to the Linc to face Vick for the first time since he replaced Donovan McNabb and Kevin Kolb(notes) as the Eagles' franchise quarterback. And whatever they have in their heads about the player they knew years ago, it's time to throw out those concepts.

They'll be looking at a very different person. As will the rest of the NFL through the 2010 season. And whatever people think of Michael Vick off the field, the guy they'll see between the lines is someone very different than his past incarnations.

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