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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- It is a hot, muggy June day with a thunderstorm fast approaching. But here, at the Atlanta Falcons' state-of-the-art-in-the-middle-of-nowhere practice facility, the crowd that has gathered for a meaningless Monday workout cares nothing about the coming storm.
|Michael Vick says he's improving in the pocket, but knows his running skill is special.(Getty Images)|
"Vick, please," yells a middle-aged man as the 22-year-old quarterback makes his way through the crowd, signing as he goes. "Please Vick. Vick, please."
Vick eventually signs the man's football, just as he does everything else that is stuck in front of his face. The faces of the kids light up, an autograph they will certainly cherish for years to come, and one certainly to rise in value faster than most of their daddy's stocks.
It is that one middle-aged man, though, who sums up the group's feelings best.
"You just made my day," the man said.
So goes the life of Michael Vick. Part NFL player, part pop icon. As he strolls into the team's weight room, he is asked if he ever imagined making so many people joyous from one simple swipe of his pen (by the way, it takes him about a second to write his nearly unreadable signature).
"Nope, never," he said. "But I will tell you, it does make you feel good."
These special ones come along rarely, those athletes who demand we watch for fear of missing something amazing. Even on the practice field, during a June passing camp day, your eyes can't turn away from the guy in that black No. 7 jersey.
Look away and you may be faced with listening to someone talk about what he just did. It was that way once with another Michael, only on the basketball court.
Last season, Falcons cornerback Ray Buchanan said Vick was half-man, half-amazing.
The half part might be understating things.
His own teammates marvel at the things he does on the practice field, like throwing a rocket across his body for a completion some 40 yards down the field. They also protect him like a valuable piece of fragile crystal, realizing it is Vick that makes this team a Super Bowl contender.
When a young player rushed too hard during a practice here Monday, knocking the offensive lineman into Vick and putting him on the ground, the same message could be heard coming from several directions.
"Keep off No. 7," they said.
Don't dare injure the meal ticket in June, not when things suddenly look so bright for Falcons football. It is Vick that draws the fans to these workouts, with crowds increasing each year. It still isn't a Green Bay-like passion, but in a city where the Braves have been king for so long, Vick is doing a great deal to change that thinking.
With apologies to Greg Maddux and the boys, Atlanta is his sports town now.
The scary thing for the rest of the NFL is that he's only going to get better. How do we know? He says so.
"The things I'm working on now, the little things, will make me a lot better player," said Vick.
In his first full year as the starter in 2002, Vick did some magical things, both with his feet and his arm.
With one of the strongest arms in the league, it wasn't uncommon to see him roll out and zip a pass for a long completion on the other side of the field. His ability to run was second to no quarterback who has ever played the position before him, his ability to shake defenders often leading to funny did-you-see-that moments.
Ever see an overweight parent trying to chase down a 2-year-old after sipping Coke? That's what Vick made defenders look like last season.
He threw for 2,936 yards and 16 touchdowns, while running for 777 yards on 113 scrambles and planned runs. He ran for seven touchdowns.
But that isn't good enough. The team wasn't happy with his 54.9 completion percentage. He opened the season completing 61 percent of his passes in the first six games, but that fell to 51 percent in the final nine.
Some around the NFL theorized that the league had caught up some to Vick's style of play, sort of like a baseball league catching on to a new pitcher. The Falcons saw it differently.
They saw it as a fundamental problem. To help remedy that, they let quarterbacks coach Jack Burns go, who was more of a strategist instead of a teacher and made receivers coach Mike Johnson the quarterbacks coach.
Johnson, a former college quarterback at Arizona State and Akron, had been the QB coach of the San Diego Chargers before joining the Falcons staff last season.
In 2001, Johnson spent much of that spring working out a quarterback that the Chargers planned to draft. He got to know that player well, spending two weeks with him.
That player was Michael Vick.
"It's funny how it's come full circle," said Johnson.
The Chargers traded the top pick that year to the Falcons, who used it to take Vick. Atlanta drafted Vick knowing that he was raw and needed work, and that's where Johnson will be key.
Johnson stays on top of Vick during practices, preaching footwork. It is his job to make Vick a fundamentally better player, sort of like tuning up a Ferrari, which would make Johnson "Coach Mechanic."
"We're trying to improve his throwing base," said Johnson. "Trying to get his feet right every time. Kind of like a golf swing where you take the same swing every time. A lot of time his base is too tight which forces him to take a big stride, and sometimes his balls are too high or too low. All we're trying to do is make sure his fundamental base is at a high level and then his athletic ability will take over."
"He's always coaching me, always on top of me," said Vick.
During Monday's workout, Vick did a short roll on one play before throwing a long out. The pass was high. Johnson corrected him on his footwork and when Vick did it the next time he threw a laser to the prefect spot for a completed pass.
"That's the way he is," said Johnson. "If you show him the way to do it, he'll do it. Once you tell him and show him, he processes it."
The idea is to make Vick better inside the pocket. While his wonderful running skills make him special, it's those runs that also expose him to big hits, hits that can lead to injury and loss of time.
Vick took some big shots last year, such as the one he took in the Falcons' playoff loss to the Eagles. Those hits make the Falcons hold their collective breaths to see if he gets up.
Staying in the pocket is something all the great running quarterbacks eventually learn is the best thing to do. Vick is no different.
"I'm not going to run as much as I did last year because I'm learning how to play the game," said Vick. "I'm getting better inside the pocket. That happens every year."
"At the same time, I have to do it," he said. "It's one of my weapons. It gives me that edge the other guys don't have." Vick is sensitive about those who question his ability inside the pocket. When asked about the people who say he hasn't developed inside the pocket he gets terse.
"I don't care what people say," he said. "I know I'm going to be better inside the pocket. They need to watch more football if they don't think I can make plays inside the pocket."
Truth be known, Vick would rather throw it than run it. It's a lot safer, he says.
It's that running ability and the improvisational skills that draw the fans to him, and what makes defensive coordinators stay up the night before playing him.
A Michael Vick inside the pocket just doesn't seem right, does it?
"I guess I am a different breed," he said. "I have certain skills that nobody can match and no team can handle, except Tampa Bay."
It was the Super Bowl champions who humbled Vick late last season. Riding an eight-game winning streak, the Falcons went to Tampa with visions of an NFC South title. They left with their quarterback's head as low as it could be, the victim of the NFL's best defense.
In a 34-10 Tampa Bay victory, Vick completed 12 of 25 passes for 125 yards and ran five times for 15 yards. The Bucs kept him bottled up the entire day, kind of like putting a racehorse in the stall when all he wants to do is run.
"I felt like I was so ready for them, and then that happened," said Vick. "That was tough. I wanted to cry, but I couldn't let a tear come to my eyes."
That loss will help drive Vick as he moves to get better. If he does, which he will, look out. We've never seen a quarterback like him before, but what happens when he learns to read defenses a little better? Learns to get the ball out on time?
Maybe that's why he has become this rock-star player. We like different, and Vick is like no other. His popularity is soaring because of that. Vick spent the offseason making commercials and doing promotions.
Another Michael, the guy who once tore up the NBA, told him to seize the moment in doing such things.
"Make the money now," Jordan told him.
"I have to take advantage of every opportunity I get in life to make a dollar," said Vick. "I have a family and a son. It's not about me anymore. I have to make sure he grows up to be the man he's supposed to be and I have to be there for him financially and give him the things I couldn't have. If doing a seven-hour shoot for a commercial helps that, then I will do it."
Why not? The guy is red hot. His Q rating is soaring, his No. 7 jerseys seen in malls from coast to coast. And now with the Falcons getting new-look uniforms, there will be new No. 7 jerseys to go with the old ones. It isn't cool to be wearing the old duds, which makes one wonder if the uniform change wasn't made for just that reason.
"It's amazing that I have that much of an impact on people," Vick said. "People meet you and they're falling out like I'm Michael Jackson or something. It's changed a lot for me. But I'm blessed to be in this situation."
He says that a lot, which is a sign of the type of person he is. He is genuine and Johnson said he is the same guy he met back when Vick was still a college sophomore.
"Only with a few more millions," Johnson said.
There is arrogance about Vick, but it's a pleasant one. It's not that boastful talk, but if asked about his skills and abilities, Vick won't shy away from talking them up.
So when asked if he's now the best quarterback in the league, Vick didn't just shun off the question like most would do.
"Let's just say I'm one of the best," he said. "I'm not the best -- yet. Until I win a Super Bowl, I can't say I'm the best."
If he wins a Super Bowl, look out. The pop icon quarterback might just become the most popular athlete in America, a mighty throne that once was owned by that other Michael of hardwood fame.