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Insights: Sports

The top pick in this year's NFL draft, Michael Vick, carries the big burden of expectation
Dave Anderson
From the Print Edition:
Jeff Bridges, Sep/Oct 01

He's pro football's latest phenom. He's Michael Vick, the Atlanta Falcons' can't-miss rookie quarterback with a left arm that slings arrows and the legs of an Olympic hurdler. Maybe he won't miss. Maybe he will.

He's got potential, but every No. 1 choice has potential. What he's got to do is fulfill that potential in a big way. Being a No. 1 choice hardly guarantees that. In the National Football League's long history, only one quarterback who was the overall No. 1 choice is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame: Terry Bradshaw. Two others, John Elway and Troy Aikman, surely will be there soon. Drew Bledsoe and Peyton Manning should get there, too.

Other No. 1 choices have put up good numbers as quarterbacks, but not always with championship success. Jim Plunkett has two Super Bowl rings. Vinny Testaverde, Jeff George and Roman Gabriel do not have any. Neither does Steve Bartkowski, selected by the Falcons in 1975 as the No. 1 choice.

Potential is just that -- potential. The Falcons thought so much of Vick's potential that the day before last April's NFL draft, they swapped a bushel full of players to the San Diego Chargers just for the privilege of picking the Virginia Tech quarterback with the very first choice. The deal included a first-round choice (No. 5 overall), a third-round choice, their second-round choice next year and Tim Dwight, a coveted wide receiver and kick returner.

That big a trade is unusual for a quarterback, but not for a running back. Two years ago, the New Orleans Saints swapped eight draft picks to the Washington Redskins to grab Ricky Williams. A decade ago, the Minnesota Vikings packaged seven choices, including their No. 1 in 1992, to obtain Herschel Walker from the Dallas Cowboys, who then used some of those picks to get running back Emmitt Smith, safety Darren Woodson and defensive tackle Russell Maryland.

A big trade doesn't guarantee success, either. Even when healthy, Williams has been a headache for the Saints' coaches. And for all of Walker's talent, he always seemed to gain more yards than stature and reputation.

To compound the Falcons' investment in him, Vick quickly signed a six-year contract worth a possible $62 million, the NFL's richest rookie deal. All that money will undoubtedly inspire pass-rushers to go after him and sack him.

Then again, nobody knows just when Dan Reeves, the Falcons' grizzled coach, will put the 21-year-old Vick out there to be sacked. Reeves wisely doesn't appear to be in a hurry to do that. In 1983, as the Denver Broncos' coach, Reeves made the mistake of naming a rookie quarterback, John Elway, as his starter for the season opener. As the Falcons' training camp approached, Reeves appeared to have learned his lesson with Elway.

"I have to make sure," Reeves kept saying, "that I don't put Mike in the same situation I did with John and make him uncomfortable. We have to spend an awful lot of time on him and learn to take advantage of his abilities. We had to play John awful early, and I think we'd have been better served if we'd have waited a little while."

Whatever a little while is. If starter Chris Chandler, who took the Falcons to Super Bowl XXXIII three seasons ago, gets injured or the Falcons begin to stumble toward a second straight 4-12 season, a little while for Vick could be just a few games. But if Chandler stays healthy and the Falcons surge toward the playoffs, will Vick pout because he's on the sideline with a headset and a play chart?

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