How many lives does Michael Vick have left?
The New York Jets quarterback has been counted out of the NFL a couple times at this point. Once considered a game-changing, paradigm-shattering type of draft prospect, Vick's Atlanta Falcons teams struggled to translate his athleticism into wins, and his career ended there with strife, embarrassment and legal trouble.
That should have been it for Vick.
Frankly, some will always believe he didn't deserve a second chance.
Against almost all odds, Vick not only found a job following his stint in Leavenworth, he also came out of federal incarceration as a better passer. Andy Reid, Marty Mornhinweg and the Philadelphia Eagles seemed to do what the Falcons never could—help Vick become an NFL passer.
As quickly as the new-look Vick was assembled, however, he fell apart under Reid, and then Vick was one of the biggest victims of the otherwise completely positive switchover from Reid to Chip Kelly and his high-octane offense. Vick was atrocious and—while still plenty athletic for an NFL QB—lacked his once-famous elite quickness to make up for his deficiencies as a passer.
Now, Vick is a Jet and hoping to beat out second-year passer Geno Smith as the team's starting QB. If he does, it will be another chapter in Vick's reclamation project, which—by this point—could very well be titled The NeverEnding Story.
Vick Is at His Best When He's Acting, Not Thinking
The false narrative around Vick is that he changed as a player between his time with the Falcons and Eagles.
That, honestly, could not be further from the truth.
In reality, what happened was far more to the credit of the Eagles coaching staff and maybe even to the credit of Vick as well. Deep down, what the Eagles tapped into was the nature of Vick's play. Vick may have been defined as a "running" quarterback, but what really made him great was how instinctively he played the game.
Longtime readers of my columns may recognize this and think I'm beating a dead horse here, but for the newbies, let me explain that I always divide quarterbacks into facilitators and innovators. The former group can run an offense and make the most out of the players around him. The latter is an expert at doing more with nothing and making plays when no one else can.
Neither group is essentially better than the other. Innovators will typically make more mistakes than facilitators (at least with equivalent levels of talent around them), but they'll also make more big plays.
Vick is pretty much the textbook definition of an innovator.
But being an innovator doesn't mean that one has to be a runner. Brett Favre (also a late-career Jets transplant) was innovative long after his running ability waned. Tony Romo and Aaron Rodgers both have running ability, but it's their innovative passing—making something out of nothing—that consistently has them atop statistical regular-season rankings.
What the Eagles were able to do was take Vick's natural ability to innovate and translate that into the passing game while (somehow) convincing him to stay in the pocket (somewhat). The best way to look at it is that Vick's mindset didn't change, it just got funneled to a more productive channel.
Under Kelly's new regime, however, and in Kelly's new offense, Vick looked lost. He wasn't just acting, he was thinking. Many times, it was paralysis by analysis in an offense that is supposed to be tailored to avoid just that.
Let me be clear, though. Vick's recent downslide didn't start with Kelly. It started under Reid as the offense expanded from a truncated status in Vick's first couple of full-time years with the team. Not to get too Freudian here, but Vick also seemed to crumble under the increased weight of the expectations placed upon him—almost as if he is at his best when people are expecting the worst.
If you're following along at home, that's exactly where Vick is this season with the Jets.
There's little to no expectation of any greatness from Vick this season—except maybe from nominal Jets fans who haven't actually watched him play since Madden 2012. Really, many of them don't even expect him to start and are clamoring for Smith to be under center in Week 1. (Frankly, that's where I land on the whole battle as well.) Yet the assumption he'll do poorly might actually allow Vick to play at his best level.
The other big boon for Vick is the presence of Mornhinweg as the Jets' offensive coordinator. Mornhinweg not only got through to Vick once, he also knows the mistakes that led to their eventual parting with the Eagles. If Vick ends up earning the starting job, there's every reason to believe that Morningweg will have a proper battle plan in place.
How Much Leash Is Left For Rex Ryan and the Coaching Staff?
Then again, if the coaching staff really wants to do what's best, maybe Vick won't start at all.
This isn't only the biggest hurdle over Vick starting this season, it's also an even bigger obstacle against any theoretical Vick success being a leapfrog into something more. Vick, 34, is not a long-term solution for anyone.
Even if Vick somehow lit up the NFL this season—leading the Jets to a Super Bowl and earning MVP honors in the process (note: this is hyperbole, not a prediction)—the Jets would still have to think about a Plan B for 2015 and beyond. Maybe that Plan B is Smith, maybe it's someone else.
In last year's Super Bowl, the Seattle Seahawks proved that their 2012 gambit of playing the best QB (third-round pick Russell Wilson) rather than the anointed starter (highly paid free agent Matt Flynn) was the right move to make, but that's not always how teams operate. In fact, in terms of team building, playing a short-term option for short-term gains may be the exact wrong move to make.
In analyzing the quarterback battle the Jets will be holding this summer, it's almost impossible to separate the long-term fate of the Jets and their coaches. General manager John Idzik isn't married professionally to Rex Ryan and his staff. Frankly, firing Ryan after a (again hypothetical, not prediction) poor season this year might extend Idzik's shelf life.
So if Ryan is worried about his job, going with wins might look like the best option right now, even assuming he'll need to figure out the QB position again in a year.
The corollary thought with that, however, is that Idzik—who is going to be more concerned with the team's long-term security rather than Ryan's job security—might push (or mandate) that Smith start for the exact same reasons. Smith is, at least generally speaking, Idzik's guy.
Then again, Smith was only a second-round pick, so it's not as if the team took him in the top 10. A starting spot for either could simply be an endorsement for "Mr. Right Now" rather than anointing the person as the quarterback of the future.
Still following along?
It's convoluted, because none of this is obvious or going to be the stated course of action for the Jets. These are the kind of thoughts and motivations that are deep-seated in the subconscious and might not even be apparent to the coaching staff—more of a self-fulfilling prophecy than anything else.
Make no mistake about it, though, if Vick is going to really turn around his fortunes, it needs to be more than just about a good training camp. There could be more to the story under the surface that Vick can't control. In truth, while it may not be right or fair, Vick could have the best training camp of his life and still not have the ability to turn around any fortunes at all.
That possibility only grows more likely if Smith, too, has a stellar training camp.
That's a big reason why it's almost impossible to make a definitive case for Vick's chances this season or into the future. It's a big hill to climb, but he's climbed it once, and it's also impossible to count him out completely.
Depending on one's personal feelings, Vick's may not be the greatest redemption story of all time, but if he ends up writing another chapter in New York, it could end up as one of the longest.