PHILADELPHIA – Perhaps because so much has happened since the gates opened at Leavenworth, it is so easy to forget these are the first spring practices in which Michael Vick has been the Eagles' starting quarterback.
At first this might not seem like much. The OTAs and minicamps NFL teams conduct are not competitive practices. Nobody tackles. Nobody wears pads. Contact is forbidden. It is the peaceful time in football. Little happens. Everyone tries to keep from getting hurt.
But there is also something symbolic about presiding over a team at this time. If nothing else, the image of a leader is solidified. Bonds are formed. Plays are perfected. Timing is synchronized. And in the first three years Vick was in Philadelphia, he was not in charge. In 2009 he arrived in training camp as an occasional wildcat quarterback. The next spring he was the second-string quarterback behind Kevin Kolb. Last year's spring workouts were cancelled because of the lockout.
And maybe because those practices were missed, something was gone when the fall arrived.
"It matters," tight end Clay Harbor said after a practice last week. "All those reps you get out here as the No. 1 quarterback are important. Instead of being thrown in the fire of training camp or the regular season, you have time to sit down and talk about how plays work. You get a chance to work the kinks out.
"It's just another level of working on things."
This might be the most important offseason of Vick's career. He is 31 and coming off a season in which he attempted more passes and threw for more yards than at any time in his career. But also one in which he had 14 passes intercepted. And though he is still elusive, the hits have also added to his injuries. It is hard to imagine him playing every game. He takes too much contact.
His 2010 revival seems distant now, in part because his team disappointed last year. But at the same time the Eagles are as committed to him as ever. Mike Kafka and Trent Edwards are not here to challenge as starters. A succession plan is not in place. Unlike 2009 when Vick sat behind the franchise quarterback Donovan McNabb and Kolb, who was McNabb's designated replacement, there is no imminent successor for Vick.
No matter the public opinion of Vick – which is forever divided following the dogfighting scandal – Eagles players regard Vick as their leader. This may have been the case even when McNabb was still in Philadelphia. For whatever reason, he has always resonated with his Eagles teammates. They listen to him. They believe in him.
"Mike is not a jerk," tight end Brent Celek said.
In a sport where routines matter, the Eagles may have needed him at these workouts more than one would expect. For a few years, Philadelphia has been collecting young, fast, gifted athletic players. But until this spring, Vick never worked with them as the starter. He didn't run many plays with the first-team offense. While he later had success on the field, players wondered if some of the natural closeness between quarterback and receiver was lost.
"If we had the same good feelings last year that we have now we would have gotten off to a better start," Vick said while standing on the field after another Eagles OTA workout.
Several Eagles said Vick was disappointed by last season. They all were. They know that even with all the defensive confusion and Vick's interceptions, they were still 8-8 with so many games they could have won. With one break they could have been the ones going to the playoffs and potentially the Super Bowl.
Several times last week, Vick talked about improving his accuracy. He said this is a normal pursuit, that he is forever trying to improve the great flaw in his game.
"I try to make game as easy as possible, even if that isn't possible," he said.
Interestingly, Vick is only two years younger than McNabb was when the Eagles dumped him to the Redskins two years ago. At the time the implication was that McNabb was too old and too worn down. Vick looks and acts much younger than McNabb in those days. He still moves quickly, his throws sizzle downfield.
Players say he has worked on building relationships with them. Already they say the timing has improved. More connections have been made. And maybe this is exactly what they have needed: a spring with Vick as their starter.
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