|Even President Obama has weighed in on Vick, saying he needs to slide more to avoid injury. (Getty Images)|
BETHLEHEM, Pa. -- The Philadelphia Eagles have two missions this season: Minimize quarterback Michael Vick's mistakes and maximize his starts. If they succeed, they should accomplish a grander objective -- namely, a return to the playoffs.
I believe they can, and I believe they will, and I'm not alone. In fact, one coach I trust told me last week that this season's best team won't be the New York Giants or the New England Patriots or the Green Bay Packers.
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"It's the Eagles," he said. "Provided, of course, they can keep Vick healthy."
Ah, I knew there was a catch. Vick getting hurt is like maple trees losing their leaves. If it's autumn, it's going to happen. But it won't -- it can't -- if Philadelphia is going to put itself back together.
That's why the Eagles' coaching staff and Vick himself are determined to do something about it. They work on drills that have Vick running out of bounds, throwing away the football instead of taking the sack and sliding to avoid tackles. In fact, when he slid to the grass early in training camp he drew a standing ovation from an enthusiastic crowd.
The idea is to accomplish something Vick has not since 2006 -- survive a 16-game season -- and, frankly, the odds aren't with him. He's played an entire season only once in his career. But the Eagles are undaunted, trying to do what they can to keep him in the lineup -- and for all the right reasons.
"If he stays healthy, takes fewer hits and slides when he has to," wide receiver DeSean Jackson said of his quarterback, "the sky's the limit."
I don't know that Vick can do what he should do -- step out of bounds instead of trying to elude an oncoming defensive back or slide feet-first instead of juking a closing linebacker -- but I know he has no choice. The guy is one of the game's best and most elusive playmakers, once rushing for over 1,000 yards in a season, but running through NFL defenses comes with a price -- and Vick pays it each year with time off.
That must stop. Vick knows it, the Eagles know it and the club's fans know it. Geez, even the President of the United States knows it, with Barack Obama this summer imploring Philadelphia cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha "to tell Vick to slide."
"It's not hard," said Vick. "You hear it so much it's ingrained in the back of my mind now. I made a pact to myself last [Thursday] night because I had an opportunity to run [in practice that afternoon]. But I try not to run against our defense, I try to get rid of the ball, I try to distribute it and not run into the guys.
"So I'm going to work on running and sliding because that will carry over into the game. I think that's easy because, as I said, it's ingrained in my mind now. Every time I take off and run this year I'm going to be thinking about my coaches, my teammates and the President."
"In that order?" I asked.
"In that order," he said.
That's good for the Eagles. Because the Eagles need Vick like Sears needs Roebuck. They were 1-2 without him last season. They were 2-3 without him the year before. I think you get the idea. Without Michael Vick, there's nothing extraordinary about the Philadelphia Eagles -- and that's not a knock on backup Mike Kafka; it's a testament to the extraordinary abilities of Vick.
He can run. He can pass. He can dodge tacklers. He can electrify crowds. He can even get the attention of the President of the United States. What he can't do is stay healthy, and the Eagles have had enough already.
"The reality is important," coach Andy Reid said, "and the reality of the thing is that last year the four playoff teams had four quarterbacks who played all the games. Not that you can't win games without Michael; but you want your starting quarterback there to do that."
Exactly. But Vick is not on his own here. Football is a team game, remember? Yes, Vick must protect himself, but the Eagles' pass blockers must protect Vick, too. A year ago he absorbed too many hits and suffered too many turnovers -- 18 to be exact (14 interceptions, four fumbles) -- and both must be curbed for Philadelphia to move forward.
"You can't control all the turnovers," Vick said, "but you can limit them. It's inevitable that we're going to turn the ball over once in awhile, but it can't be in critical situations. We have to be able to recover from it."
A year ago, they were not. When the Eagles lost to San Francisco, a fumble killed a last-gasp drive at the 49ers' 31. When they lost to Buffalo, five turnovers sabotaged their chances -- including a Nick Barnett interception of Vick on the Eagles' last series.
Vick is right: Turnovers happen. But a severe injury to Michael Vick cannot -- not if Philadelphia is going to return to the top of the NFC East. So the Eagles work with him on avoiding big hits and hope that newcomer Demetress Bell can hold up at left tackle.
First things first, though, and the first priority is Vick. If he can clean up his mistakes and remain in the lineup, the Eagles have a chance to go to the top -- and I'm not talking about the NFC East.
Remember what Jackson said: The sky's the limit. It is if Michael Vick doesn't bow out.