Petrino confident Vick can succeed

Bobby Petrino is confident he can succeed where others have failed and turn Michael Vick into an accurate passer, writes Len Pasquarelli.

Updated: March 28, 2007, 9:19 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

PHOENIX -- Bobby Petrino has No. 7 on his mind.

And when it comes to star quarterback Michael Vick, whose development probably will determine whether Petrino is successful at the NFL level, the Atlanta Falcons' first-year head coach has a number in mind as well.

Sixty-five.

As in a 65 percent completion rate.

"For our offense, we feel like that's where you've got to be," Petrino said Wednesday morning as he fielded questions about his quarterback during the annual NFL meetings that concluded later in the day. "That's the goal. That's what we've got in mind. It's the place we want to be."

"His first instinct is to get outside the pocket. I'd like for that to be his third instinct instead. We want him to go through his [passing game] progressions first."
Bobby Petrino, Falcons coach, on QB Michael Vick

And it's a place where Vick, whose brilliance is typically defined more by his feet than his arm, has never gone for a full season. Still, Petrino, known as a sort of passing-game Pygmalion, is aiming to improve, well, Vick's aim. Even if Vick's history suggests he may never approach the accuracy benchmark that Petrino considers a must in his offense.

Vick's career completion mark is just 53.8 percent. His best year in terms of marksmanship was in 2004, when he completed 56.4 percent of his attempts while starting 15 games. In his 67 starts, Vick has 22 outings in which he completed 60 percent or more of his passes. At the same time, Vick has started 27 games in which his completion rate was 50 percent or less.

In the Petrino-designed offense, such wild fluctuations aren't acceptable, not if the passing game is to operate at optimum efficiency. And so Petrino spoke of working with Vick on the kind of fundamentals past Atlanta coaches and offensive coordinators have discussed: footwork, release, comfort in the pocket, and going through all the progressions in the aerial game before deciding to abandon the pocket on some derring-do scramble.

Was it a persuasive pitch from Petrino, who earned his stripes in the college ranks as an offensive guru, and cast his lot with Vick by trading talented backup Matt Schaub last week? Well, the audience of curious media members on Wednesday morning really doesn't matter much, truth be told. The person Petrino must convince more than anyone else is Vick, who has been receptive and attentive and eager to assimilate fresh ideas, according to the new coach.

Along with a new coach has come a new freedom for Vick, who will have the option under Petrino of using audibles at the line of scrimmage, something he was largely precluded from doing under Jim Mora's staff. There has been some misperception in Atlanta that Vick will call many of his own plays and will be able to dictate much of the offense in which he is operating.

That isn't the case. What he will be able to do, Petrino emphasized, is get the Falcons out of play calls that don't fit the defensive scheme or alignment.

Michael Vick
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireMichael Vick completed just 52.6 percent of his passes last season.
"That's my idea of how you train a quarterback," Petrino said. "You put it on his shoulders. I don't think you should beat your head against the wall, running plays that [are doomed] from the outset. I want our quarterbacks to have the ability to get to something that will work."

What works best for Vick is still something Petrino is learning. But the first-year coach won't be so stubborn that he completely eliminates some of the things Vick is most comfortable with. And he won't shoehorn his quarterback into running an offense that does not take advantage of Vick's unique skill set. Still, the Petrino offense will be more of a paint-by-numbers and learn-by-rote endeavor than Vick has experienced in the past.

And it will be an offense that, if executed properly, should create a more consistent Vick, who isn't forced to make as many big plays outside of the pocket. It hasn't taken Petrino long to discover that Vick's fallback position is the run. When things break down, Vick is more apt to break out of the pocket than he is to keep scanning the field for available options in the passing game.

"His first instinct," Petrino said, "is to get outside the pocket. I'd like for that to be his third instinct instead. We want him to go through his [passing game] progressions first."

For all his explosiveness in the running game -- Vick has averaged 828.8 yards rushing in the four seasons in which he started 15 or more games, and he became the first quarterback in NFL history to rush for over 1,000 yards (1,039) in 2006 -- the Falcons' star hasn't been nearly as elusive while in the pocket. He has been sacked once every 10.3 dropbacks, one of the worst marks in the league over the past decade, and has taken a lot of negative plays because of his inability to see the field and locate open receivers.

Eliminating those kinds of disastrous plays, cutting down on Vick's turnovers and developing a more efficient and proficient passer are Petrino's goals. He plans to spread the field, provide Vick better sight lines, and cut down on protection leakage.

It is, to be sure, an ambitious agenda. About as ambitious, it seems, as transforming the strong-armed but also scatter-armed Vick into a high-completion rate passer. But Petrino is not lacking in confidence -- in himself, his system or his ability to make it work, even if history suggests Vick isn't the perfect candidate.

"Michael seems committed to getting it done," said Petrino, who seems convinced he will succeed with Vick in areas where others have failed. "He's eager to do this and we don't see any reason why he can't."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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