Not his explosive footwork in Minnesota where he rushed for an NFL record 173 yards by a quarterback. Not his cool mastery of the position that netted 2,936 yards, 16 touchdowns and a Pro Bowl bid in his first season as a starter. Not his NFL season best 171 passes without a pick. Not his 28-yard pass to himself after a tipped ball against Carolina. Not even his electrifying, revolutionary performance on the hallowed ground of Lambeau Field where he became the first visiting quarterback to ever win a playoff game. But this scene, right here, where the mangled wreckage of the helmet's earpiece was capable of transmitting only one final message to the rest of the football world: Your worst nightmare has come true. He has the drive to match the talent. The kid hates to lose.
"Nothing in my life has crushed my heart like that loss," Vick admitted this summer. "So teams think they know me now? Think they're gonna control me now? They still don't know anything about what I can do. With the kind of work I've done this offseason, man, when the season starts I'm gonna be 10 times better than I was last year."
June 9, 2003 … Flowery Branch, Ga.
So this spring, while Vick made a quick visit to the equipment manager to pick up another helmet, new Falcons quarterback coach Mike Johnson broke down game film. While Vick nursed his injuries from 2002 (right foot, left thumb and both shoulders), Johnson charted plays. While Vick successfully lobbied new Atlanta owner Arthur Blank to fork over a $10 million bonus for Buffalo restricted free agent receiver Peerless Price, Johnson crunched the stats. And while Vick took his 1-year-old son, Mitez, to Disneyland, Johnson squeezed a stopwatch.
His research uncovered some startling data: As a passer Vick was, of all things, slow. Those famous feet (the ones that turned the Vikings' defense into a pack of purple Wil. E. Coyotes) were often times his biggest liability.
A former CFL quarterback and a fellow lefty, Johnson discovered that as all the punishment began to catch up with Vick, his fundamentals deteriorated. Significantly. In his final five games Vick was picked six times (and again, for a touchdown, on the opening drive in Philly). His completion rate fell to nearly 50 percentage and his passer rating dove 21.5 points as the Birds lost three times.
For starters, Vick's stance was too narrow, which forced him to over stride and caused his passes to float. He also had trouble recognizing blitzes and coverages. And this combo often left him hesitant at the end of his drop where Johnson calculated he took up to half a second too long -- between .6 - .8 of a second -- to release the ball.
Vick admits to getting lazy with his footwork and to occasionally trying to do too much -- which is often the curse of the physically gifted. When a coach asked Vick why he refused to take a sack or even slide after a scramble, Vick told him he never even thought of it since he expects to score on every play. Sometimes, it's hard to argue that point.
"Every 15 years or so you see a guy like Michael Jordan or Mike Vick come into a sport and just take the whole thing to another level," says former Pittsburgh safety Lee Flowers. "Great seems like the wrong word. Phenomena is better. This league, right now, has no answer for Vick. He can control this game and do anything he wants. If he wants to pass for 400 yards? He can. If he wants to rush for 200 yards? He can. You can't understand it until you see it for yourself. That's why film work doesn't help. You gotta see this to believe it. But the really sick thing is, if he keeps getting better, he'll be able to do anything he wants, like the Michael Jordan of football. No disrespect to the other 52 guys in Atlanta, but without Mike Vick that team is still below .500."
Film study on defensive keys, like the depth of the strong safety, have helped Vick with his recognition. Before every practice now Johnson runs him through up to 30 minutes of intricate, excruciating Fred Astaire dance-class foot work drills to build muscle memory. The Falcons want Vick's completion percentage above 60 and his passer rating to push into the 90's. Of course, another by-product of all this is that Vick will be more likely to stay in the pocket and therefore take less of a beating. (Read: avoid injuries.)
However, Vick finds this suddenly popular notion that he's being reined in an absurd over-simplification. "Nothing and no one is gonna change the way I play this game," Vick says, a rare hint of anger in his voice. "When I feel pressure I'm still gonna get through the line, shake and bake a linebacker, take on a corner, take it back to the old school. That's what makes me, me. If people try to change that, it won't happen. I will fight that with everything I've got."
June 14, 2003 … Atlantic Ocean
If you think Vick can fling a football, you should see him chuck a crankbait. Growing up in Newport News, Va., the kid everyone called "Oogie" used to sneak off to fish the pier near 16th Street. Now he's got a huge cabin cruiser he calls his "water Lexis" and a fully loaded deep-sea fishing boat, Bad News.
Like most sagacious men of the angle, Vick measures his life by the time between fishing trips. And the more crazy things get on land (during a recent break at the Falcons facility, he was hit up with 11 requests in 28 minutes) the more Vick retreats to the quiet calm of Chesapeake Bay where he enjoys the escapism of the sport: both engines full up, the land shrinking to a sliver behind him. "Even for just a short time, it gets me away from everything," says Vick, "like a mini-vacation."
He's also a competition junkie and the NFL hasn't always supplied him with a proper fix. There were times in the 2002 season, during games in Carolina, Green Bay and Pittsburgh, when he stopped, right there on the sidelines, and thought to himself, This is too easy. "Fishing isn't like football," he says with a wry smile. "It's a lot harder."
This summer Vick may have found a worthy adversary: spadefish. They look like giant, silver, football-shaped angel fish, can reach 15 pounds, live near structure 15 miles from shore and are considered one of the toughest fish to land. Home in Virginia for the weekend Vick renewed his battle with the Warren Sapp of the sea.
How'd ya do?
"Caught my limit," he says with a straight face.
"For real. Call my mom if you want."
June 23, 2003 … Flowery Branch, Ga.
Vick had gone the first eight practices of passing camp without throwing a single interception (he actually knocks on a wood lunch table after mentioning this) but today, within the span of just a few minutes, he's tossed two, both of them inside the red zone. And now, as the Falcons defense hoots and hollers while taking the ball to the house, everyone waits to see what the kid will do. Will he revert to his old safety valve, tuck the ball down and take over with his feet? Or will he stick with the Plan: predict the defense, stay in the pocket, work the read progression, execute the called play, become a complete passer.
"What's gonna happen when Mike learns the game like a Joe Montana?" asks Price. "I'm gonna score a lot of damn touchdowns, that's what's gonna happen."
Vick punches the air in disgust and pushes his helmet up onto his head before huddling with Reeves and Johnson. He then moves away by himself to clean up his footwork and release. He gets back under center. The ball is snapped. Pressure pushes him out of the pocket. Instantly, he tucks the ball in and shuffles to his left picking up speed near the line of scrimmage.
Johnson nervously jumps up on his toes. Reeves drops his head like a disappointed father. Has he not learned a thing this summer? "Vick can't take a hit, I've seen that," said Carolina Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kris Jenkins during training camp. "So you beat the snot out of him and he softens up and gets frustrated. Then just sit back and watch how quickly he becomes one dimensional."
At the last second, though, Vick plants his feet. His body jerks up. Defenders give themselves whiplash trying to keep up while Vick effortlessly threads the ball through three bodies, hitting Brian Finneran in the back of the end zone. When he said he was gonna be 10 times better in 2003, he wasn't exaggerating.
"I control this game," says Vick after practice, pointing to himself for emphasis. "I'm not saying that to be arrogant, I'm just saying that because I can."
July 25, 2003 … Spartanburg, S.C.
There is a medium sized oak tree near the field that the Falcons use for training camp at Furman University. And BV (Before Vick) the entire fan and media contingent at Falcons camp could shade themselves under this solitary arbor. Now, season tickets are sold out for the first time in club history and 102 media credentials have been issued for this day alone. More than a thousand fans line the field, many of them wearing their newly redesigned $69 jerseys backwards so the Vick faces forward.
With 28 TV cameras swarming under his chin, Vick is asked for a prediction about the upcoming season. Blank sneaks into the crowd, placing a hand up to his ear. "I want to hear his answer to this one," he chuckles. Vick eludes the question as if it were a Minnesota linebacker. A few hours into his third season he already seems more comfortable and confident in the limelight and much more willing to trust -- and lead -- his teammates.
Away from the crowd, though, his intentions for '03 are clear. "We're the talk of this league now," says Vick. "This is my team and the Falcons are gonna go only as far as I take 'em. That's a lot on my shoulders, I know, but I accept the responsibility. Because you can never be great until you accomplish the greatest thing in your sport, so I gotta win a world championship."
Vick finishes the first day of the new season by throwing 30-yard outs to Johnson with spirals so tight the ball practically disappears. Along the crowded fence, a young boy with a blond buzzcut and bag of Lays potato chips in one hand climbs onto this father's shoulders for a better look.
"Is Michael Vick smart, daddy?"
"Is he fast, daddy?"
"Is he the best, daddy?"
The father falls silent for a moment while contemplating the question.
Then he issues what was supposed to serve as the theme to the entire 2003 NFL season.
"Just watch him son. Just watch him."
David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at Dave.Fleming@espn3.com.