As if there aren't enough subplots already surrounding the Sunday return of Michael Vick to a starting lineup for the first time in nearly four years, here's yet another unplumbed element to consider: For the Philadelphia Eagles backup, the matchup against the Detroit Lions represents a chance to showcase himself for 2011.
Vick's only two regular-season starts since signing with Philadelphia in 2009 have been as a wide receiver. Because he is in the final season of his two-year contract with the club, and he sorely wants to start again as a quarterback somewhere in the league, Sunday's game takes on even more importance for him.
He can be an unrestricted free agent next spring and, given the undeniable paucity of quality quarterbacks in the NFL, Vick, according to people close to him who spoke with The Sports Xchange late in the week, regards the opportunity to start in place of the injured Kevin Kolb as a bit of an audition. The curiosity factor alone will make for pretty good theater. A breakout performance, in essentially Vick's first game back as a real quarterback, could result in opportunity and redemption.
There were plenty of rumors this spring that the Eagles might dangle Vick in trade discussions. But they instead dealt starter Donovan McNabb, paid Vick the $1.5 million roster bonus he was due and kept him around. But on the open market? Let's just say his performance against the Lions could spark interest next spring.
"He's concentrating on doing [well] for the Eagles, but he's aware of the big picture, too," allowed one member of the Vick camp.
The sentiments of some throaty Eagles fans aside, Kolb will return to the starting lineup when his concussion headaches subside, coach Andy Reid made clear. But if Vick plays well as a starter, there's a chance he could be in some franchise's starting lineup, and become again a major headache for opponents, next year.
And he knows it.
One of the NFL's smartest head coaches, holder of an economics degree from Georgetown and a guy who often uses computer technology to help conjure up a game plan, Detroit boss Jim Schwartz might load all the best information he can muster into his laptop for Sunday's game and it still might fry the hard drive.
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Computers, after all, operate on valid reasoning, inference and connectivity. Yet there might be no principle, and certainly no logical blueprint, for defending the mercurial Vick, who will start in place of the concussed Kolb.
"He's a scary guy ... but you've still got to prepare for him," said Schwartz, whose team came within the application of an arcane rule last week of opening a season with a victory for the first time since 2007. "You can't just throw up your hands and say, 'Oh, well.' Hey, he's human."
Maybe so. But Vick, who will make his first regular-season start in 1,358 days, can present some pretty inhuman (and inhumane) challenges to a defense. In relief of Kolb during last week's 27-20 loss to Green Bay, Vick threw the ball well (101.9 rating), but most conspicuously ran for 103 yards. It marked the eighth 100-yard rushing game of Vick's career -- vs. only two 300-yard passing games -- and after appearing a step slow in 2009, and at times tentative, he seemed back to the Vick of old.
"I felt some things coming back," Vick said afterward.
Before his incarceration for dog fighting, Vick in 2006 became the first quarterback in NFL history to rush for more than a 1,000 yards in a season. His last start came on New Year's Eve 2006, a 24-17 loss at Philadelphia, when he left the game just one snap into the second half with an ankle injury. Before that injury, sustained on a Juqua Parker sack, Vick completed just 8 of 14 passes for 81 yards and had three runs for 17 yards.
Sunday will mark the first time that a Schwartz-designed defense will face Vick. In the 2003 matchup between Atlanta and Tennessee, when Schwartz was defensive coordinator for the Titans, Vick was still recovering from a broken leg and didn't play. None of the starters on the revamped Detroit defense has faced Vick, either, and that has, according to the Detroit News, caused some sleepless nights among the Lions' defensive staffers and players.
|Michael Vick has six more 100-yard rushing games than 300-yard passing games in his career. (Getty Images)|
Defending Vick presents a bit of a conundrum, because a unit has to be aggressive and force him to make quick decisions, but at the same time must also be disciplined and stay in its rush lanes. Over-commit to Vick or overreach, and he is apt to get outside the pocket. And that's when he's most dangerous.
"Clearly, you can't let him get outside the containment," said linebacker Zack Follett. "That's when he makes plays with his feet. And, really, if you've watched him play, it's when he makes a lot of plays with his arm too. So it's a double-edged sword."
Somewhat dichotomously, Vick's biggest weakness -- an inability to read defenses and sit patiently in the pocket and wait for a receiver to uncover -- is arguably his biggest strength as well. On pass plays, Vick will make one or two reads -- usually two at most -- and then pull the ball down and run with it. That might put him in harm's way, noted Lions second-year safety Louis Delmas, but it just as often means a big hurtin' for a defense.
"You can't let him get off," said Follett. "If he gets that confidence going, like, 'They can't stop me no matter [what I do],' he feeds off it. And one big play can lead to another then."
Last week, in replacing Kolb for the second half, after having worked a series in the first half and a few snaps in the "wildcat" formation and as a wide receiver, Vick had nine of the Eagles' 10 longest plays. That included runs of 34, 23, 17, 15 and 12 yards. He also had a pair of 27-yard completions as he connected on 16 of 24 passes for 175 yards. Unofficially, half of Vick's 16 completions came when he was outside of the pocket.
It was a very solid outing, one that Vick acknowledged "meant a lot" to him. But a big game against the Lions on Sunday could ultimately mean a lot more.
Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange.