The top pick in this year's NFL draft, Michael Vick, carries the big burden of expectation
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?
"Not if I'm learning," he says. "If the season goes by and Coach Reeves feels that I still need to be sitting and learning, then I'm all for it. Then hopefully, I'll be out there when the time is right."
Vick, out of Newport News, Virginia, where his father worked in the shipyards, has sounded patient, saying, "I always stress that the most important thing you can do is listen to your parents and the people who are there to guide you. One big thing I would say to any child is, the key to success is listening." And listening to Reeves and quarterbacks coach/play-caller Jack Burns will help him adjust to what most NFL fans have no sense of -- the speed of the pro game: the speed of the pass rush, the speed of the defensive backs closing in on his receiver, the speed of the linebackers chasing him when he tries to run.
"He can learn the offense," Reeves says, "but it's being able to speak it in the speed of the game. It's like speaking a foreign language. If you've got to go to a country and speak that language, it's a whole lot different than taking a test and passing it."
With the Falcons realigned into the new National Football Conference South, beginning in 2002, twice each season Vick will be the target of such feared quarterback predators as The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Warren Sapp, Marcus Jones and Simeon Rice, as well as New Orleans' La'Roi Glover and Joe Johnson.
Being drafted by the Falcons gives Vick the opportunity to play home games on the Georgia Dome's artificial surface, which he believes "makes me a whole lot faster and my movements better." Then again, the Falcons, with only six playoff appearances since their formation in 1966, have a history of too many No. 1 draft choices that flopped, notably linebacker Aundray Bruce in 1988.
On the surface, Vick's stats in only two seasons at Virginia Tech were dazzling -- a 20-1 record as a starter (losing only to Florida State in the national championship game as a freshman), 3,074 passing yards and 1,202 rushing yards. But how valid were all those yards? The Hokies' schedule included Rutgers, Temple and James Madison. And pro football assessors have several other questions:
How accurate is Vick's arm? His 54 percent completion average in the 2000 season with the Hokies isn't that impressive. If his Falcons receivers aren't open, will he be too eager to try to run, as he did with the Hokies, and expose himself to injury? Even at 6 feet and 215 pounds, he may not be rugged enough to withstand the collisions.
How quickly will he absorb Reeves's complex offense? It eventually antagonized Elway.
How soon will Vick stop making rookie mistakes? In his first Falcons minicamp, he gobbled two barbecue sandwiches and munched potato chips, then was timed twice for 40 yards in a startling 4.3 seconds. Suddenly feeling queasy, he hurried to the locker room. He didn't throw up, but he no longer has barbecue sandwiches and potato chips before a workout.
Perhaps the most important question is, how quickly will Vick be accepted by the Falcons' veterans as their leader, as a quarterback must be?
In a conversation on draft day, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning advised Vick, "You've got to show [the Falcons' locker-room leaders, linebacker Jessie Tuggle and running back Jamal Anderson] that you want to be in that weight room working out to make yourself stronger and better." Manning should know. As the overall first choice in the 1998 draft, he had to convince his Colts teammates that he wasn't just a pretty-boy quarterback with a big contract, that he was willing to get his uniform as dirty as theirs.
Manning quickly emerged as a premier quarterback following four seasons of big-time college football at the University of Tennessee -- twice Vick's experience at a lesser level of college competition.
Perhaps significantly, three other young quarterbacks who have matured quickly -- the Vikings' Daunte Culpepper, the Tennessee Titans' Steve McNair and the Philadelphia Eagles' Donovan McNabb -- also remained in college for the full four years. Culpepper, out of Central Florida, had the added luxury of staying on the sideline for virtually his entire rookie year in 1999 (behind Jeff George), then took the Vikings to the NFC championship game last season. McNair, out of Alcorn State, seldom played for two years, but in his third year as a starter led the Titans to Super Bowl XXXIV.
"Things happen so fast," McNair says of his early games as a starter. "If you don't know the game mentally, you're in no-man's land."
McNabb, out of Syracuse was baffled initially not only by the speed of the game, but also by how opposing defenses, especially those of the now reigning Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens and the Titans, would realign as he was calling signals at the line of scrimmage.
"I'd get stuck in a lot of calls," says McNabb, who took the Eagles to the NFC playoffs last year in only his second season. "When you're a young quarterback, all they see is fresh blood."
Ryan Leaf and Akili Smith were fresh blood, too. Leaf, selected by the Chargers with the No. 2 choice (behind Manning) in 1998, was not only ineffective, he was infuriating to his coaches and teammates; he's now third on Tampa Bay's depth chart, behind Brad Johnson and holdover Shaun King. Smith has yet to emerge as a dependable passer for the undependable Cincinnati Bengals. But at least Leaf and Smith entered the pros with more college experience than Vick; Leaf spent three seasons at Washington State, while Smith played at Grossmont (California) Junior College for two years and another two at Oregon.
So when Michael Vick takes over as the Falcons quarterback, either sooner or later, all those blitzing linebackers will be seeing even fresher blood. He'll be wearing "7" on his red-white-and-black jersey, but he'll really be wearing a $62 million bull's-eye.
Dave Anderson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning sports columnist for The New York Times.