Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Life without Vick

Life without Vick
July 23, 2007
Matt Crossman

Michael Vick had what appeared to be a breakout season in 2004, the kind that had been expected of him since he came into the NFL as the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2001. He led the Falcons to 11 regular-season wins and the NFC championship game, one step from the Super Bowl.

That same year, the Humane Society began to hear Vick's name connected with dogfighting. As Vick's career on the field reached new -- and what turned out to be fleeting -- levels of success, Humane Society officials considered the reports on Vick credible enough to add his name to a roster of 20,000 dogfighting suspects. But the organization did not aggressively pursue him because it never knew where Vick's alleged dogfighting took place.

Now, after an indictment that rocked the sports world, everyone knows.

Vick's beautiful white house in Surry County, Va., became the center of an investigation into one of the biggest stars in the biggest sport in the country. But as the case against Vick moves forward, that beautiful house, with its picket fence, dog rape stand and dog carcasses buried in the back yard, will return to relative obscurity and other locations will take over. One is a courtroom in Richmond, Va. The other is a practice field in Flowery Branch, Ga.

A poor fit on the field?

The Falcons' new offense is called the power spread attack. It will be implemented starting Thursday, as the team opens training camp workouts in Flowery Branch, 45 miles northeast of Atlanta. But Vick might never learn the new scheme. On Monday, commissioner Roger Goodell ordered Vick to stay away from training camp until the league reviews the charges against him.

Even before Goodell's mandate, the growing expectation had been that Vick, one way or the other, would not step on the field this season. He certainly won't be at camp that first day; he'll be in a Richmond courtroom to be arraigned on dogfighting and related charges.

Even if Vick were not in trouble with the law, he would be closely watched in training camp. With every year that goes by that he does not put up big passing numbers, he moves one step closer to being a relative bust. And with a new coach and new offense this season, time is running out for Vick to prove he's more than just a terrific athlete who plays quarterback.

There is doubt about whether new coach Bobby Petrino, who was hired in the offseason after Jim Mora Jr. was fired, is the right man to help Vick. One insider said Petrino's taking over as head coach with Vick at quarterback was like "going into the job with an anvil around your neck."

Petrino is a quarterback guru who ran a pro-style offense as head coach at the University of Louisville. But his only NFL experience is three years as an assistant with Jacksonville. His challenge, with or without Vick, will be to convince a skeptical locker room that his offensive schemes will translate from college to the NFL.

At Louisville, Petrino was like a chess master, thinking several moves ahead. He was ready for whatever a defense did, before it did it, and his offenses put up big points totals. Petrino meticulously prepared a dazzling assortment of formations and shifts to keep defenses off-balance, but what good is meticulous preparation for a player who thrives when he's making things up at full speed?

"Nobody expected Vick to succeed in Petrino's offense," says a former scout who maintains close contacts in the league. "They do use rollouts, and that would play to his strength. But in that offense, you have to be an accurate thrower and make quick decisions."

Vick, 27, has never done well in either area -- unless tucking in the ball and running counts as a quick decision (and the way Vick does it, it certainly should). "Could he succeed?" the former scout says. "Yes, he can in any offense. But he would have had to put in a lot of work, and he's never done that."

A distraction, to say the least

Vick's reported apology to team owner Arthur Blank and contrition to teammates suggest the situation is wearing on him emotionally. If his case runs on the same schedule as a typical case in the federal court in Richmond, it could affect him physically, too: The trial would begin during the season.

The presiding judge is Henry E. Hudson, and he's known as a stickler who hands down stiff sentences. Hudson requires defendants to be in court for every pretrial hearing as well as the entire trial, says David P. Baugh, a former federal prosecutor who has argued cases in Hudson's court. How many pretrial hearings there would be and how long the trial would last are impossible to know, but Vick would be forced to miss several practices at the very least. Courts are closed on Sundays. The Falcons have two Monday night games -- Oct. 15 and Dec. 10, both in Atlanta -- but a skilled lawyer would be able to massage the court schedule to make certain no hearings fell on those dates and thereby preclude or jeopardize Vick's chances of playing.

Baugh predicts Vick's trial would last no more than three days. Baugh, now a criminal defense attorney in Richmond, says Vick's time commitment to the legal proceedings, outside of pretrial hearings and the trial itself, would be minimal.

Harrington is a dodgy backup plan

In ordering Vick to stay away from camp, Goodell said that though the courts must decide Vick's guilt or innocence, "it is my responsibility as commissioner of the National Football League to determine whether your conduct, even if not criminal, nonetheless violated league policies." Goodell said the league would complete its review as quickly as possible, but there has been a growing belief in Atlanta that Vick would take a paid leave of absence if he weren't suspended.

How long it would last and whether it would be voluntary weren't clear. The team seems destined to prepare for the season with Joey Harrington as quarterback.

The Falcons signed Harrington to a two-year, $6 million contract as insurance after they dealt former backup Matt Schaub to the Texans in March. The trade was questioned at the time, in part because Schaub seemed like an ideal fit in Petrino's offense and also because of Vick's disappointing history. If the deal was dubious then, it seems exceedingly shortsighted now.

"Coaches were coming up to me and saying how much they liked Matt Schaub," says Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman, an analyst on Fox. "Why don't you wait and see what he does in the offense in the early part of training camp? It doesn't make sense to me."

After being taken third overall in the 2002 draft, Harrington flopped as a starter in Detroit and Miami. He's a shadow of Vick, exhibiting many of the same flaws on the field but possessing nowhere near the same amount of overall talent. With the Lions, he never had a strong supporting cast and he did little to suggest he would have succeeded if afforded one.

Harrington's accuracy is poor, especially outside the hash marks, and he appears rattled in the pocket. He bounces around on the field as if afraid his head is about to be taken off -- a possibility, perhaps, considering his lack of protection over the years; still, his play has never inspired confidence from his teammates. Last season, Harrington took over for Daunte Culpepper in Miami and started 11 games. He posted a 5-6 record before being benched for the season finale. Harrington has a 23-43 career record as a starter and a career quarterback rating of 68.1.

The Falcons gave up 47 sacks last season and want to improve their pass protection. If Harrington takes over under center, they'll have to ramp up those efforts. Harrington is a favorite whipping boy around the league -- one source says, "Joey Harrington walks into the huddle and 10 guys want to walk out" -- but he's not without supporters. Aikman likes him, based in part on reports from Jason Garrett, Dallas' offensive coordinator who was Harrington's quarterbacks coach last year in Miami. Says an NFC scout: "I think he's a streaky passer. He's got good size. Good arm strength. He's not a real good decision maker, but if he's comfortable and gets in a rhythm, he can be productive."

Harrington has been preparing to step in for Vick since law enforcement officials raided that beautiful white house and its property on April 25. That preparation will continue while Vick is away from camp. "As a backup quarterback I have to be ready," Harrington said in June. "It would be naive of me to say I'm completely oblivious to what's going on, but it doesn't change the way I would prepare for things. Whether these things were happening off the field or not, I still need to be prepared to play."

In Petrino's offense, Harrington will be asked to make accurate throws in a vertical passing attack, but he hasn't done that with any success in his career. That's not a problem that can be fixed in training camp, and neither can Petrino redesign his scheme. "Vick's uncertain status makes getting ready for the season tough for Atlanta," says an NFL offensive coordinator. "They have built that whole offense around him. They have structured their whole camp around him and his abilities. They have to be scrambling."

Scrambling, indeed. Before any decision was made on Vick, there was speculation that the Falcons would pursue Culpepper, who was released last week by the Dolphins. Because of his superior arm strength and size, he would be a better fit than Harrington in Petrino's offense. When healthy, Culpepper is clearly a better quarterback than Harrington, but his health is always a question mark. Looking at the bigger picture, it probably doesn't matter who takes over under center. Says one former player who remains close to the league and the Falcons:

"This is the worst position a team has been in going into camp that I have ever seen. You make a coaching change, you bring in new players, you think you have done everything possible to position yourself to win, and you're finished before you open camp. They are dead."

Contributing: John Rawlings, Tom Dienhart, the Associated Press and D. Orlando Ledbetter

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