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NFL | WEEK 1

Full Speed Ahead

Vick, who struggled with Atlanta's new offense in the preseason, is determined to learn the system and lead his team.

September 12, 2004|From Associated Press

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Two years ago, it all came so easy for Michael Vick.

A dazzling run at Minnesota. A playoff win in Green Bay. A spot in the Pro Bowl. A staggering array of endorsements. Not bad for his first year as the Atlanta Falcons' starting quarterback.

Then came 2003.

Vick broke his right leg in the preseason and missed the first 11 games. By the time he returned to the lineup, the coach was on the verge of getting fired and the Falcons were far beyond any hope of making it back to the playoffs.

Now comes a new season, and perhaps no one in the NFL is under more scrutiny than Vick, who has basically taken on the role of being a one-man team in Atlanta.

As he goes, so go the Falcons.

"I'm just eager to get out there and play," said Vick, looking ahead to Sunday's opener at San Francisco. "People don't understand how excited I am to be back at the start of the regular season. Even though I came back last year and played at the end of the year, it still wasn't the same as playing a full season."

Vick accomplished his primary goal of the preseason, which was getting to the regular season relatively unscathed -- albeit with a sore hamstring. But he looked uncomfortable in the offense, a West Coast adaptation brought in by new coach Jim Mora and his coordinator on that side of the line, Greg Knapp.

The new scheme relies on quick throws, shorter routes, spreading the field and precise timing. Vick, of course, is more of an ad-libber, able to do things with his arm and legs that most quarterbacks wouldn't even attempt.

Knapp concedes that Vick faces a severe learning curve.

"There are some growing pains he has to go through," Knapp said. "It's a two- or three-year process. Our main objective was to have Mike ready to go at the start of the season. We accomplished that."

At best, Vick's first grade in the new offense would be incomplete.

He took only 29 snaps in the preseason, worrying more about his health than getting up to speed in game conditions. In those rare times he was on the field, Vick looked out of sync with the new offense. He completed just 5 of 12 passes for 35 yards, throwing an interception and losing a fumble. His rating was a dismal 14.6.

Then again, it was only the preseason.

"I know this: Once Sunday comes and I take my first snap, it's full speed ahead," Vick said defiantly. "People who are doubting me and saying that I'm not ready, I'm going to show them that I'm ready."

Trying to take some of the focus off Vick's struggles in the preseason, Mora bristles at anyone who suggests the Falcons are running the West Coast offense. Apparently, the new coach figures if he comes up with a different name, then everyone will quit wondering if Vick can make the scheme work.

"We don't run the West Coast offense," Mora said. "We're going to put an end to that right now. It's not the West Coast offense because we're not in the West."

So what is it?

"Call it whatever you want," Mora said. "We call it the Atlanta Falcons' offense."

Likewise, Vick is clearly put off by all the talk radio chatter, which has heaped endless praise on third-round pick Matt Schaub -- who is more familiar with the West Coast style and put up much better numbers in the exhibition games.

"People know what I can do," Vick said. "It's a new system, and I'm confident. Why shouldn't everybody else be?"

Of course, the idea that the Falcons would bench their franchise player in favor of an untested rookie based on 29 snaps in the preseason is downright ludicrous.

But Vick has been listening to those who say he's not ready for the season, who say he's too concerned about getting hurt. Sure, he protected himself in the preseason, but that's only natural after what happened last season.

"I really had nothing to prove," Vick said. "I had a bad experience last year. I was trying to protect myself this year."

And a memo to his critics: The regular season will be different.

"The only thing I can tell them is just watch us as the season goes on, watch how I progress, watch us this Sunday and hopefully I'll go out there and do my job," Vick said. "There's not really any other way to put it. Just trust my word and bank on me getting the job done."

Or look back to 2002, when Vick shattered the mold for an NFL quarterback. It was as if someone had put Dan Marino's arm with Barry Sanders' legs, creating a player who knew no boundaries.

Vick threw for 2,936 yards and 16 touchdowns. He ran for 777 yards and eight touchdowns. He took a mediocre team on his back and carried it all the way to the second round of the playoffs.

Along the way, he rushed for a record 173 yards at Minnesota, capped by an electrifying 46-yard touchdown in overtime that left the Vikings sprawled all over the turf. The Falcons made the playoffs for the first time in four years, then became the first visiting team ever to win a postseason game at Green Bay's Lambeau Field. Vick emerged as an icon of pop culture, landing his own line of shoes and the cover of "Madden 2004," the popular video game owned by most NFL players.

Even last year, when Vick's return was too late to salvage the season, he showed what he meant to the Falcons.

The team went 2-10 when Doug Johnson or Kurt Kittner started. With Vick going the rest of the way, Atlanta finished 3-1.

"He understands that when the real pressure's on -- that's when he shines the most," tight end Alge Crumpler said. "All I know is they're just putting more fuel in Mike's heart.

"If we protect him, he's going to deliver. He always does."

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