Michael Vick is an enigma wrapped in a mystery wrapped in an incompletion.
Vick is unlike any player ever to play in the NFL—a unique blend of rocket arm, lightning quickness, and other-worldy athleticism. Since the Falcons drafted him, the team has lived and died by Vick's performance.
In 2006, Atlanta did far more of the latter than the former.
Vick's rare talent has earned him patience from the Falcons brass. In fairness, he has shown signs of greatness, as when he led the Falcons to the 2004 NFC Championship Game. Still, Vick is maddeningly inconsistent, and has yet to fulfill anyone's expectations.
It would be foolish to believe that 2007 will be any different.
The Falcons would like you to believe that replacing good-old-boy coach Jim Mora with hardliner Bobby Petrino constitutes a major change—not least of all because the former Louisville coach nailed his interview by declaring a hard-set plan for how to deal with Vick.
Mora and predecessor Dan Reeves never could decide how to handle their star QB, switching from one offensive scheme after the other in Vick's first six years with the Falcons. Petrino's plan, on the other hand, is as straightforward as it is misplaced:
Make Vick a passer first.
The new coach wants the mercurial signal caller to go through his progressions before even thinking about running. Unfortunately, Vick has not been a very good NFL quarterback. He's an outstanding athlete, but being confined to the pocket will only highlight his inadequacies as passer—which include poor decision-making and a tendency to force throws into coverage.
Vick shines when he gets to make plays with his feet. He looks comfortable on roll-outs and play-action, and he dynamically affects defenses when he makes himself a threat to run or pass. His success in Petrino's system will come only if he finds a happy medium between his new coach's wishes and his own inherent gifts.
And Vick will need to make it work, because the Falcons aren't built to win games without him.
Warrick Dunn should be a lock to record another 1,000-yard season behind new fullback Ovie Mughelli and Petrino's new blocking scheme. Jerious Norwood, a veritable Dunn Mini-Me, is expected to get a lot more carries, and may be poised for a breakout year after averaging 6.4 YPC in 2006. But neither Dunn nor Norwood is a bruiser, meaning tough yards will be hard to come by if defenses can stack the box with eight men.
At receiver, the Falcons brought in Joe Horn to provide some veteran leadership for an otherwise awful unit. Horn will be joined by Roddy White and Michael Jenkins, two underachievers who make big plays with great infrequency. Tight end Alge Crumpler, meanwhile, remains Vick's best and most reliable target.
The success of the defense will hinge largely on the play of the front four. A healthy Rod Coleman would help make the D-line respectable, but the offseason loss of DE Patrick Kerney will put the load on rookie Jamaal Anderson and the oft-injured John Abraham.
If Anderson and Abraham survive, and if DT problems don't rear their ugly heads— the Falcons defense should be okay.
MLB Keith Brooking leads a strong group that features up-and-coming outside—backers Demorrio Williams and Michael Boley. CB DeAngelo Hall is a shutdown corner who fits well in a secondary featuring veterans Lawyer Milloy and Jimmy Williams.
But the success of the Falcons in 2007 will depend, as it always does, on the play of Michael Vick. An effective passing game will open up the rushing attack and balance the offense. A balanced offense will control the ball and keep the defense off the field.
The Falcons can't win without Vick—but lately, they haven't been able to win because of him. Petrino needs to let Vick do what he does best instead of trying to fit him into an ideal quarterback box.
Until he does, the Falcons will still be waiting patiently for Vick to reach his potential.
Projected finish: 6-10, 3rd NFC South
Keep your eyes on: OG Justin Blalock—Rookie mauler will have immediate impact.
Take your eyes off: WR Roddy White—Third-year bust will have no impact whatsoever.