ATLANTA – Three days before the Atlanta Falcons' first loss of the season, running back T.J. Duckett stood at the rear of the team's Flowery Branch practice facility and exchanged pleasantries with a visitor. Congratulations on Atlanta's 4-0 record began to flow, when Duckett thrust his palms out as if to stop oncoming traffic.
"Whoa," Duckett said, cutting off the praise.
Whoa? What whoa?
"Everyone in the city is talking and excited, but we have a long, long way to go. It's a long season," Duckett said. "All the excitement, I just want to be like Whoa, whoa, whoa.'"
Maybe Duckett saw something like Sunday's 17-10 loss to Detroit coming. Maybe he knew what most people will come to find out about Atlanta, that Michael Vick – the man the Falcons' success is most predicated upon – is in the odd position of playing catch-up. For once in his life, Michael Vick is lagging behind his team's learning curve. And Sunday's loss to the Lions was a clear example of Vick's tribulations in the Falcons' new West Coast offense.
The defense will play respectably, and the special teams will be superb. Meanwhile, Vick will get excited and throw inaccurate dump-offs, as he did on a handful of passes to running back Warrick Dunn against Detroit. He will lack patience and gun interceptions rather than checking down and finessing a short pass. And most of all, he will struggle to tread water in a collapsing pocket.
Shoring up the last point might be the difference between winning and losing this season. Right now, Vick is showing an almost stubborn will to stay between his tackles, but he's also displaying a vulnerability. If Vick is going to stay in the pocket, he needs to learn to navigate it. Three times Sunday, Detroit's front four hit him and caused fumbles. And ultimately, that was the difference.
As Vick put it, "Sometimes you're going to feel a guy coming off the backside edge, and you're caught up looking downfield for a receiver, and you kind of get careless with the ball. It's totally something that I have to work on."
Vick's passing figures were an ordinary 18-of-29 for 196 yards with one interception and no touchdowns. But it was his six sacks that unraveled Atlanta's scoring opportunities and led to its defeat. You can bet defensive coordinators will be looking closely at Detroit's design, which was to take away Atlanta's running game (Dunn had 18 carries for 44 yards) and blanket tight end Alge Crumpler (one catch for 24 yards). That forced Vick to sit in the pocket and go through his progressions, giving the Lions time to apply pressure.
In the end, we saw a quarterback who, when it comes to comfort in an offense, is still in the fetal stages.
Cause for alarm? Those who know the West Coast system say no. Philadelphia coach Andy Reid believes it has taken Donovan McNabb almost five years to fully blossom in the scheme. Even Sunday's winning quarterback supports long-term success. Detroit's Joey Harrington is in his third year in the West Coast system, and only now is he starting to display the efficiency and patience coach Steve Mariucci has craved. But it didn't come without some of the same discomfort Vick is experiencing now.
Harrington said his most difficult adjustment to the system was learning that "everything happens in a slotted time."
"You go to one [receiver], you go to two, and if you have to get to your third, then you're probably going to have to check down [and throw to a running back]," Harrington explained. "It's very regimented."
Vick's game has never been regimented. It has thrived on chaos and playmaking rather than schedule and development.
The Atlanta fans, who surprisingly booed at times Sunday, are going to have to understand that. Changing schemes in pro football isn't like swapping cooking utensils in the kitchen. The development of Vick and the Falcons will remain closely tied, success hanging on each lesson. Losses, as Falcons cornerback Allen Rossum said, will "probably be for the good" in the long run – the way vegetables are "probably for the good" of 8-year-old children.
"What we're seeing now," Falcons coach Jim Mora said, "is Mike and our team going through some growing pains."
Until those growing pains subside, the momentum of Atlanta's expectations will have to take on the same pace as Vick in the pocket.
As Duckett put it, something in the neighborhood of "Whoa."