QB transforms into playmaker in fourth

ATLANTA -- With two minutes remaining in Sunday's game, and the surprising Atlanta Falcons only three clock-killing kneel-downs removed from securing a comeback victory over the San Diego Chargers, the press box announcer apprised the media masses mulling over various story lines that Michael Vick had registered a 104.9 passer rating.

Talk about a misleading number, and a terribly distorted overall perspective, of what really transpired during a 21-20 victory in which the Falcons and Vick overcame a 10-point hole in the final quarter.

When it comes to passer rating, here are the numbers inside the numbers, ones which more accurately portray the manner in which Vick morphed from beastly to brilliant at a time when his team most needed him: In the first three quarters, Vick completed seven of 16 attempts for 88 yards, with one touchdown pass, one interception and a passer rating of 56.3. During the final three Atlanta possessions in the fourth quarter, when the Falcons scored twice to turn a 17-7 deficit into a 21-17 edge, Vick was five-for-five for 130 yards, threw for one touchdown, ran for another, and had a perfect passer rating of 158.3.

Portrayed in the local newspaper's NFL preview section as Superman several weeks ago, Vick must have discovered a cozy telephone booth in the inner recesses of the Georgia Dome during the final period. Because up until then, against a San Diego defense that hardly demonstrated a kryptonite blitz, the Falcons star far more resembled Clark Kent.

"It was almost as if he flipped a switch, like magic or something, and we started to make plays all of a sudden," said wide receiver Dez White, whose 32-yard touchdown catch, on a perfectly-lobbed pass to the far left corner of the end zone provided the winning points. "When he's that hot, well, Michael is pretty unstoppable, and it just raises the level of all the other guys out there. There aren't a lot of players who can do that. The ones who can, well, they're considered pretty special."

The league's newest high-profile poster boy, and a guy NFL Properties is banking on to sell zillions of T-shirts over the next decade, Vick, from a purely marketing standpoint, is the football version of Michael Jordan. From a competitive perspective, while the Falcons coaches tried unconvincingly to persuade anyone who would listen that the play-calling in the fourth quarter was the same as in the first three periods, the comparisons to Jordan, at least for one day, were appropriate.

It was as if, when the fourth quarter began, the Atlanta brain trust just told Vick to go out and win the game.

Maybe it was simply coincidence that, on the initial snap of the fourth quarter, Vick just happened to connect with wide receiver Peerless Price for 50 yards deep up the middle of the field. Or that, after only two carries in the first three periods, Vick had four rushes for 32 yards (excluding the three kneel-downs at the end), including a 14-yard scoring sprint, in the fourth quarter. Or that Vick, who appeared mechanical and programmed for much of the game, was notably more productive when roaming outside the pocket.

Then again, this victory, which moved the upstart Falcons to 5-1 and gave Atlanta even more a vise grip on the NFC South, maybe was attributable to just abandoning a game plan and permitting Vick to play the street-ball style that seemingly turns him from automation into amazing.

Certainly the Falcons brass doesn't want to hear that -- head coach Jim Mora, whose five victories equal the club's total for the entire 2003 season, was borderline defensive when it was suggested the Atlanta offensive design might restrict its best player -- and no one can blame it. After all, coordinator Greg Knapp and the offensive coaches are attempting to nurture Vick into the NFL's premier quarterback not just its most breathtaking playmaker, and Sunday again manifested the difference between the two.

But there clearly are going to be occasions, those times when Vick appears befuddled and boggled by the discipline the coaches are attempting to instill in him and which he still sorely lacks, that the Falcons are just going to have to surrender to his unique skills. And Sunday, with the offense stagnant and Vick looking too robotic, was one of those times.

Heck, even Vick, in his own way, conceded as much.

"There comes a point in time in the game when you are struggling and then you just get tired of it," Vick acknowledged. "You have the crowd going, because they want to see something happen. And there comes a time when you have to step up and simply forget everything that has been happening and make the best play. At the end of the third quarter, we knew the situation, and we needed to start making plays."

And so in the fourth quarter, there was the 50-yarder to Price, who somehow got deep against right cornerback Sammy Davis, even though the San Diego secondary was in zone coverage. There was Vick's 14-yard touchdown run, three plays later, on a fairly remarkable effort, when the quarterback got jammed up in the pocket, then suddenly burst around left end. On the next series, Vick found White behind cornerback Jamar Fletcher, for the game-winning touchdown. And then, on a series in which the Falcons bled the final 6:01 off the clock (in part because the Chargers had so butchered their timeout allotment, burning the final one with 6:09 left in the game), Vick connected with his favorite target, tight end Alge Crumpler, on a 20-yard laser up the middle.

It was, for all intents and purposes, Vick at his best. For all the credit he has garnered during the Falcons' quick start, Vick has been more mediocre than most people seem to realize, and it has been consistent defense and overall team play that has catapulted this franchise to prominence. Fact is, Vick has looked out of place in the offense installed by Knapp, even though the staff is adamant he is making much better decisions.

Coming into the Sunday game against the resurgent Chargers, though, Vick had just two completions for more than 30 yards and had not passed for more than 200 yards. He had been troubled trying to find his wide receivers, who totaled only 29 receptions over the first five contests, and Vick completed only five passes to wideouts on Sunday afternoon.

But in the fourth quarter, he was demonstrably looser, and just seemed to take the contest into his own hands.

"I don't think you can put this loss (solely) on our inability to stop (Vick)," insisted San Diego linebacker Donnie Edwards. "But he sure made the plays when he had to come up big, didn't he, man? He's like a time bomb. You just hope you get out of the building before he explodes."

It would be easy here to contend, with Edward's time bomb reference, that Vick might well be a dud in the new offense installed this spring and summer. It is not, although the media has largely failed to ignore this reality, a pure West Coast blueprint, a fact Mora tried to drive home again on Sunday evening. What it is, though, is a derivation that is clearly going to take Vick time to assimilate.

Because of his athletic arrogance, Vick seems to feel he can just pick up the offense on the fly, and will never concede his lack of work in preseason (a paltry 29 snaps) is part of the reason he often looks like a square playmaker in a round playmaking scheme. He will, someone needs to remind Vick, have to work at mastering all of the crafts that make for a top-flight quarterback.

In the meantime, though, there will be moments when the Falcons just need to unleash the full "Michael Vick Experience" mindset. To let Vick, for lack of a better way to say it, just be Vick. To subjugate stubbornness and be concerned more about winning than how you win.

The fourth quarter Sunday afternoon was clearly one of those times.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.