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The 2014 football season is around the corner and so are the betting pools. Who has it? Who doesn't? Atlanta has made all the right moves this off season. They have kept all their key players, quarterback Matt Ryan, running back Michael Turner, and wide reciever Roddy White. They added an excellent tight end in Tony Gonzalez, and linebacker Mike Petersen. They are ripe for a repeat performance from last year. They could easily go all the way to a Super Bowl win.
Will the Atlanta Falcons Regret Losing Michael Vick?
He’s 6 feet tall, 225 pounds. 29 years old and runs a sub-4.3 40-yard dash. He has started 15 or more games in 4 of the 5 seasons since he became a starter in the NFL. He’s also one of the most athletic, versatile, and electrifying players this game has ever seen.
He's also either the Atlanta Falcons' biggest loss—or the best thing they ever deliberately forfeited.
Who is this dazzling athlete? Okay, so the numbers are a little off: He’s actually only about 215 pounds and, as of right now, he’s really just 28 years old. But as early as next year, Michael Vick will be looking for redemption in pro football, and his best shot at a return to the NFL may not be at his lifetime position at quarterback. No, his days of frustratingly inconsistent quarterback play are likely over. However, with a little added weight (say, 10-15 pounds) and a team that’s willing to take a chance on him, Vick could earn back much of the respect that he has lost since his conviction stemming from a 2006 dogfighting and gambling ring.
Even before signing with the Minnesota Vikings, there were many teams out there willing to hand over some change to a guy who was always the fastest player on the field and, for the time being, has the kind of free time it might take to pack on a dozen pounds and lift weights as if his life depended on it.
So will Atlanta regret not signing Vick again? To answer that, we have to look at what an athlete of his caliber can bring to an offense. Just look at most of the athletes in today’s NFL. Despite ages, height, weight, and draft status, the vast majority of the biggest, baddest, most freakish athletes have one thing in common: they make their money on the defensive side of the ball. DeMarcus Ware, Mario Williams, Adalius Thomas, Julius Peppers, Adrian Wilson, Champ Bailey, Shawne Merriman, the list goes on and on for today's NFL defenders, but there is a dearth of dominant athletes in today's NFL offenses. Some of the few who do fall under that caliber of player are most commonly running backs (LaDainian Tomlinson, Adrian Peterson). But you can’t find an NFL offense today that doesn’t have at least one Joe Jurevicius/Tom Waddle-type who has to find other ways to beat defenders than to simply out-run or out-jump them. In my head, I just now thought of more than three teams who actually seem to feature those sort of players in their offensive schemes, and I won’t shock anyone by personally guaranteeing that none of these teams are going to the playoffs this year.
I believe this athletic imbalance is a byproduct of the successes of teams like Tampa Bay and Baltimore in the early parts of this decade. These teams won with sheer dominance on defense and an offense that scared no one. Coaches saw defenses that literally struck fear into players, coaches and fans across the country, and they all said “I want my defense to do that.” Collegiate and high school-level players stopped being skill players on offense and found themselves playing linebacker and cornerback.
Upon his return, most teams would take a pass on Vick as a quarterback. He sold tickets and jerseys, that's for sure. He won some important games, too, but for most of his career he was wildly erratic and couldn't provide the type of leadership that teams seek in a signal-caller.
Now imagine a player like Vick, with the experience of reading defenses from the quarterback position for 74 career games, the athletic capacity of running circles around 4 defenders before getting touched, and a threat to run (or pass) the ball from end zone to end zone on any play… imagine him lined up at running back. Save for the broken leg that took away 11 games in 2003, Vick has shown he has the durability to take a pounding and dust himself off. He'd have to learn how to pass block, of course, but you can certainly assume that he would respect that aspect of the job after playing quarterback for his whole life.
He’d force defensive coordinators to account for him on every down, all the while respecting the fact that on any given play, he could suddenly rear back and sling the ball 75 yards downfield. With a creative play-caller, Vick's presence would keep the linebackers and safeties on their heels all day long.
Let's play a little game starring you, dear reader, as our defensive coordinator. Picture Vick in a single-back set in Detroit, behind Jon Kitna. Roy Williams is split wide to your right. Calvin Johnson is deployed to your left. Who don't you double-team?
Now imagine Vick standing in the shotgun formation next to Carson Palmer. With Chad Eight Five and T.J. Houshmandzadeh both lined up on one side of the field, can you really risk playing a man-to-man and expose half the field for Vick to exploit? What if he takes the snap? Can you afford to run a zone and allow Palmer and the Bengals to carve up your secondary?
Even teams like my beloved Chiefs, who’s offense resembles an auto safety crash test, could be completely revamped with a versatile playmaker who is as capable of as many things as is Vick. Today, it’s pretty simple for any defense to line up against Kansas City. With their below average offensive line, you can confidently rely on your front four to get a consistent and disruptive pass rush. With your back seven free to roam, that just means you can double-team Tony Gonzalez on every down, make sure there is at least comfortable safety help available for Dwayne Bowe, and focus everyone else on Larry Johnson.
Enter Vick. Now there's no more fantasizing about what could happen. Now he's signed to the Vikings, and the Falcons have lost him. Now the Vikings, not Atlanta, have a player who, as a passer, can create enough time for a referee to see that Gonzalez is getting absolutely mugged on over 75% of the Chiefs’ offensive plays. Placed on the same field as Johnson, he provides the lightning to LJ’s thunder. Play a soft Cover 2 that will contain the passing game and the LJ/Vick combo will gauge you for 250 a game. Focus too much on containing the two players in the box, and Bowe and Gonzalez will undeniably beat your single coverage.
Still, ultimately for the Falcons, giving up Vick was probably more for public relations purposes. And for that, they might have achieved exactly what they wanted.
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