More Falcons: Regaining their defensive swagger
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – By the end of the first week of training camp, Rich McKay had likened Michael Vick to a rock star playing quarterback, Jim Mora had defined him as a winner who has become a lightning rod for criticism, and former teammate Chris Draft had insinuated that Vick was, well, overrated.
All three definitions could be considered accurate about the Atlanta Falcons' starting quarterback. But which one will become the lasting impression?
The NFL at large is waiting for the answer, wondering whether Vick can transcend his reputation as the game's most exciting athlete. With Vick entering his sixth season – and what should be the defining window of his career – a consensus seems further away than ever.
Vick is working with new quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave to become more detail-oriented in his footwork and overall mechanics – preparation Vick has termed "fine tuning." Until he tweaked a hamstring in an afternoon practice last week, he looked like he had made progress. He appeared more uniform and balanced in his drops.
But there have been signs of progress in the past. They eventually devolved into a quagmire of inconsistency and a search for blame.
"Some people want to say he's inconsistent. At times, Mike has said that about himself," Falcons defensive tackle Rod Coleman said. "But those same people want him on their team. So what's the point?"
Maybe there is no point. Maybe, as McKay pointed out, Vick is still maturing and undergoing the same intense scrutiny that falls on every quarterback. Pick a passer, and there is always some kind of lingering lament in the footnotes of his resume.
Peyton Manning has his playoff hiccups. Before Terrell Owens, Donovan McNabb couldn't get over the NFC championship hump. Until he won the Super Bowl, Brett Favre took too many chances. Matt Hasselbeck was too cocky to accept Mike Holmgren's coaching. The list is never-ending.
So maybe the increased grumbles about Vick's passing acumen (54 percent completion rate, 75.8 quarterback rating, etc.) is the burden he'll have to carry until he proves a non-traditional quarterback can win a Super Bowl. And maybe Mora is right when he says it's a process of Vick becoming comfortable with all of the elements around him – the offensive line, his receivers, his coaches, and yes, even the so-called West Coast offense (it's actually a distant cousin) that the critics say doesn't suit him.
With Vick, there are still more questions than answers, and more debate than definition. And clarity may come only in one form: a return to the playoffs and a Super Bowl run.
Vick even said so himself.
"Whether I run or throw, or if I have the passing yards or rushing yards – if we don't accomplish the common goal at the end of the season, it doesn't mean anything," he said. "I'm not trying to prove anything to anybody anymore because, regardless of what I do, people are going to say what they are going to say. You can't please everybody."
Speaking of Vick, the Falcons think his backup, Matt Schaub, is more valuable than a first-round pick. And while it's impossible to know what the market will bear – particularly after seeing Daunte Culpepper dealt for a second-rounder this offseason – the Falcons might be right.
Already a known commodity, Schaub continues to grow. He has the total package of measurables with size and good arm strength, and he even flashed some mobility during my camp visit, moving in the pocket (and sometimes outside of it) when something wasn't immediately available downfield.
Interestingly, even the No. 3 quarterback, rookie D.J. Shockley, looks like he has some tools to work with. Shockley boasts a nice arm – "A whip," as Mora put it – some good mobility and confidence, and looks like he has some playmaking skills. One thing is for sure, Shockley looked better than when I saw him at Senior Bowl practice.
Mora noted that there might not be a younger starting wide receiver combo than Michael Jenkins and Roddy White. The 2004 and 2005 first-round picks will continue to mature with Vick, but the growing-up will surely cause more frustrations.
Both White and Jenkins had their moments during my two-day glimpse of practice, with White looking a bit more polished and showing he should be able to stretch the field. Jenkins looked stronger and received praise from Mora for his work in the middle of the field. But the tandem still seemed inconsistent, dropping catchable balls at times and still looking like what it is – two young starting receivers that need seasoning.
The question that seems most reasonable (and pressing) is who'll take care of all of the small things that made re-signing veteran Brian Finneran so important. Finneran is out for the season after tearing up his left knee in practice.
"I think they understand now that they can't depend on [Finneran] to be there and pull us out of a third-and-5," Mora said of Jenkins and White. "They've got to be the guys that make the play."
The Falcons are open to adding another veteran wideout, and they have even worked out cornerback DeAngelo Hall with the receivers. Considering the price tag on some of the available options, it seems likelier that Jerome Pathon will fill the No. 3 role when the season starts. But if the Falcons can't get some consistency out of Jenkins or White as a go-to receiver, more pressure will be placed on Vick to make things happen with his legs in passing situations.
It's no secret that Falcons owner Arthur Blank doesn't spare expenses when it comes to his team's creature comforts. But after seeing the franchise's practice complex in its entirety – with the team's dormitory campus finally completed – you'd be hard-pressed to find a more lavish facility in the country.
Nestled into Flowery Branch, the gated office complex is perched in front of three top-notch practice fields, another sprawling indoor field and the aforementioned dorms, which include a players' lounge that players describe in Club Med terms. In an era when extras can make the difference in free-agent recruiting, Atlanta's facility is unmatched.
You might not see him a great deal this season, but running back Jerious Norwood looks like he has the goods to be the next big-time rusher from the middle rounds of the draft. He'll have to get slightly bigger and stronger to prove he can be a featured back, but the third-round pick out of Mississippi State clearly has the one-cut-and-go ability to flourish in the Falcons' blocking scheme.
During one practice, Norwood took a handoff and bounced it off the right side of the line, where it appeared cornerback Jimmy Williams had him bottled up. But by the time Williams had taken a half step in the wrong direction, Norwood had planted his foot and bolted past him untouched. Williams slapped his hands together and exclaimed, "That [expletive] is fast!" to a chorus of laughter from teammates.