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Eagles' top priority is protecting Vick from hits -- and himself

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist
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After last season, Reid says Vick is now in the right frame of mind to avoid unnecessary hits. (US Presswire)  
After last season, Reid says Vick is now in the right frame of mind to avoid unnecessary hits. (US Presswire)  

PALM BEACH, Fla. -- There are a couple of things that handicapped the Philadelphia Eagles last season. One was turnovers; the other was Michael Vick. Basically, there were too many turnovers and not enough Michael Vick, and that has to change.

And it might ... if the Eagles can figure out how to keep Vick in the lineup.

It's no coincidence that the four conference-championship game finalists last season each had quarterbacks who didn't miss a start. And it's no coincidence that two of them -- San Francisco and New England -- ranked among the league's top three in fewest turnovers.

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I mention that because only one team had more turnovers than Philadelphia, and that was Tampa Bay, which didn't win one of its final 10 games. And Vick not only didn't make every start; he hasn't made every start since 2006, his final season in Atlanta.

Connect the dots, people.

If the Eagles can reduce the hits on Vick or find some way to better protect him, they reduce his chances for injury. And if they reduce his chances for injury they reduce his chances for mistakes. It sounds easy, I know, but it's not. Vick is one of the game's most electrifying playmakers, especially outside the pocket, and asking him to start thinking about protecting himself is like asking Mariano Rivera to find another pitch.

It's a process, and, sometimes, a difficult process.

I saw it happen in San Francisco in 1997 when then-coach Steve Mariucci took over the 49ers and decided to do what he could to protect Steve Young, a left-handed quarterback who, like Vick, was starting to miss time with injuries. In fact, he bowed out of Mariucci's pro debut and missed the next start entirely.

It was then that Mariucci and his staff decided to do what they could to protect Young -- first, with one of the league's top running attacks and, second, with drills that had Young practice running out of bounds, throwing away passes, taking sacks, anything to reduce his chances of injury. The strategy worked. Young made his final 14 starts, and the 49ers went to the NFC Championship Game.

I suggest the same thing could happen if the Eagles can tinker with Vick's game and make him a little less ... how do I say it? ... reckless? Sure, you might compromise his game, but look what you get in return: Michael Vick for 16 starts.

The question, of course, is: How do you get there?

"It's an important question and he realizes that," coach Andy Reid said at the NFL owners' meetings. "He realizes that the last four teams standing in the playoffs had their quarterbacks start the whole season. And he knows from film study that there are times in a game when he can go down and save himself from hits. Now it's just a matter of doing that.

"This has been a topic his whole career -- and surely has since we've had him -- and I think he understands the problem and the solution. He's in the right frame of mind right now to do that. We'll just see what happens."

The problem is that Vick is a competitive, instinctive performer who can and will score from anywhere on the field. He is fast. He is quick. He has a strong arm. And he has an uncanny ability to elude most tacklers. Notice, I said most. Steve Young was the same way until he wasn't, and that's when Mariucci stepped in to extend his career.

The same lessons must be applied with Vick, not only for his sake but for the sake of his head coach. It's no secret Reid is on a short leash, with another playoff run necessary to save his job. Reid could've gotten there with one more win last season ... or one less game with Vick on the bench ... so it's time somebody starts thinking about saving Vick to save the Eagles.

"He knows the drill," said Reid. "But you're dealing with a competitive, competitive guy. Steve was the same way: A competitive guy who thinks and knows he's one of the best players on the field and can score at any time. [Vick] has the speed and ability to do that. But like anything in life there's a time and a place for everything. It's tough. Hopefully, you grow wiser with age."

Maybe Vick will. Look at his final four starts of 2011, after he returned to the lineup. He appeared to be more under control, making surer throws and running less. He averaged 2.7 carries per game vs. 7.2 before. He threw over twice as many touchdown passes (7) as interceptions (3). And he had three games with passer ratings of 104.1 or better vs. two the rest of the season.

Oh, yeah, one more thing: He didn't lose.

"He saw things," said Reid. "He's a sharp guy. He's a competitive guy, too, but he saw it. He changed his game a little at the end, but he's got to continue on with that. He can even do better with that."

He can and he must. There can be no more collapses as there were early last season, with Vick struggling with new protection schemes, the club sabotaged by a raft of mistakes and Vick sent to the sidelines by another injury.

When someone asked Reid if this were a "make-or-break" season for his quarterback, he politely sidestepped the question, but the reporter had it right. Either Vick makes it through this season intact, or everything the Eagles are or have been under Andy Reid is in jeopardy of being broken, once and for all.

"Listen," Reid said of his quarterback, "you've got to stay healthy. That has to be of primary concern. Now, how do you go about doing that? Well, go back and look at the tape and evaluate that. That tells you, and look at the times you're taking the shots. Is there something you can do better?

"As the playoffs went on, he could see the last four standing were starting every game. And that's important. He knew it when he was hurt, and it drove him crazy when he was hurt. He knew where we were during the season, how tight things were, how competitive the NFC is ....all those things. He knows how it affects the football team."

So do we.

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