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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

(continued from page 2)

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.


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