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Tuesday, September 6, 2005
Updated: September 7, 12:35 PM ET
Vick must think pass first

By Skip Bayless
Page 2

His scrambling sprints have replaced Barry Bonds at-bats as the most riveting moments in sports. You cannot take your eyes off Michael Vick -- especially if you're one of the 11 humans trying to stop him or the 10 teammates trying to anticipate his next move.

He casually fades, rolls, reverses field as if hearing a starter's pistol, jukes in three or four directions at once and accelerates the way no running back in football can.

Michael Vick
Michael Vick on the run is one of the most exciting things in sports. But it comes at a price.
Michael Vick, human video game.

Michael Vick, the NFL's most exciting and popular star.

Michael Vick, seventh heaven for the kids who wear his No. 7 jersey.

You love this little dynamo because, at any moment, he might do something you've never seen. Will he take off and run? Or pull up and cut loose a left-handed spiral that registers on the radar gun the way Randy Johnson's heaters once did?

You just never know.

And that's the problem for the humans trying to perform (and win) with him. Vick's absurd talent is his strength, and his team's weakness. His legs will keep Atlanta in every game -- as long as he avoids the hell-bent, downfield collision that ends his season. But Vick's arm will keep Atlanta from becoming a legitimate Super Bowl contender.

It will, that is, until Vick realizes he must become more of a pocket passer than a sleight-of-foot magician -- more pure quarterback than scatback, more trigger man than speeding bullet.

Until Vick realizes that the ultimate object is winning -- not starring -- he will remain the NFL's most overhyped star. He says Falcons fans often boo when he throws -- but maybe that's because, deep down, they know he's a much better runner. Yes, the NFL's most dangerous breakaway threat doubles as a below-average passer.

And in this league, that's ultimately a beatable combination.

Do I love to watch this man go flying across my screen? I do, as much as the sickest Vick fan. But do I get sick of the way so many fans who barely know football from foosball go gaga over the Human Video Game? You had better believe it.

MORE ON MICHAEL VICK
Readers of Seth Wickersham's NFL blog voted Michael Vick the NFL's most overrated player. Read their thoughts, and his, here.

That simpleminded idolatry reinforces the worst in Vick.

Why was another left-handed scatback of a quarterback recently inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame? Because Steve Young finally realized that the only way to the Super Bowl -- to lasting fame -- was through the air.

In 1992 and '93, the Dallas Cowboys viewed Young as by far the 49ers' best running back. Yet they also believed Young's happy feet would make the Cowboys happy in playoff games. In those years, Young's mentality was to run first, which made him frantic and impatient in the pocket, which meant he threw too many indecisive, out-of-rhythm interceptions.

But in '94, Young shocked the Cowboys by becoming a quarterback. Scrambling became an afterthought. Passing once again became a beautifully timed and often unstoppable weapon for the 49ers.

Young threw two touchdown passes as the 49ers beat Dallas in the NFC championship game. Young threw six touchdown passes as the 49ers demolished San Diego in the Super Bowl. Without those two performances, would Young already be in the Hall of Fame? No way.

Listening, Michael?

For now, Vick's offense remains sensationally flawed, lurching along toward sure defeat in January in, say, Philadelphia or Carolina. That's according to several defensive coaches and NFL insiders I've spoken with the last few months. They all say basically the same thing -- that Vick still doesn't appear to have much of a clue when he drops back to pass. Little rhythm or reading. Mostly Vick being Vick.

As Vick says: "Running is just what I do, who I am."

Michael Vick
Vick makes some incredible plays -- but plays like this also leave him susceptible to serious injury.
Vick drops back, thinking run. Seldom does he settle into any bing-bing-bing flow, consistently hitting receivers as they come out of their breaks. Young, Aikman, Favre, Elway, Brady -- they've all won Super Bowls with passing attacks based on timing and anticipation.

Vick either takes off or, on the fly, looks for his biggest target -- tight end Alge Crumpler.

Why was Peerless Price considered such a bust in Atlanta? One Falcons source says Vick deserves at least half the blame. Vick, says the source, had such a hard time getting the ball to his wideouts that Price began losing confidence and finally was buried by the Atlanta media and fans.

One other problem with Vick: Though he has a bazooka of an arm, his release is slowed by a little windup motion, and his pretty rockets are too often off-target and difficult to catch. If Vick were a pitcher, he'd be walking six or seven batters per nine innings. Maybe the Falcons' problem isn't finding a big-time receiver for Vick. It's Vick finding that receiver and hitting him on time and in stride with a catchable pass.

Watch Price find himself in Dallas. Watch him regain the confidence and form that made him a Pro Bowl-caliber receiver in Buffalo. Watch him help turn the Cowboys into a playoff team.

Sometimes Vick has a hard time finding even Crumpler because Vick is one of the NFL's shortest quarterbacks, at about 6 feet. He's a stoutly muscled 210 pounds, yet he routinely goes flying into astonishingly dangerous situations. There is no way can he avoid injury playing with such reckless abandon.

Vick's response? "That's what people pay to see."

No, Michael. Ultimately, they pay to see you win. And the easiest way to do that is to stay healthy, develop a passing game that sets up the run, and scramble only to keep a defense honest.

Dan Reeves knew. Reeves had tried (and failed) to teach John Elway in Denver that the quickest way to a Super Bowl was with a rhythm passing game. Elway, like Vick, wanted to scramble until he found an open receiver or to make first downs with his legs. Elway basically ran Reeves out of Denver.

Reeves coached Vick in his first three seasons in Atlanta. Vick began buying into Reeves' stubborn but wise ways. Vick appeared to be a much better pocket passer under Reeves.

But Vick has regressed under coach Jim Mora and coordinator Greg Knapp. Those two fairly young coaches are obviously in awe of inheriting Michael Vick. They are afraid to treat Vick as if he's anything but the most powerful man in Atlanta.

Vick says Mora often slaps him on the back and says, "Just do what you do."

That's the easiest way for a coach to keep his job. But that's the hardest way to win a Super Bowl.

I'd love to see Vick win it all. If nothing else, I'd love to see him lead the Falcons to this year's NFC title, which will be so much easier to win than the AFC crown. In every game Vick plays, he'll be the most gifted player on the field.

But he won't always be the best quarterback. Which means he'll often be the most overrated star. So keep cheering his mad dashes, Vick worshippers. Keep booing his passes. Keep reinforcing what entertains you most and benefits the Falcons least.

And keep watching Michael Vick lose the biggest games.

Skip Bayless can be seen Monday through Friday on "Cold Pizza," ESPN2's morning show, and at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN's "1st & 10." His column appears twice a week on Page 2. You can e-mail Skip here.