Was Michael Vick a Worthy NFL Starting QB Even Before Going to Prison?

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Was Michael Vick a Worthy NFL Starting QB Even Before Going to Prison?
(Photo by Haraz N. Ghanbari-Pool/Getty Images)

Michael Vick’s release from prison sparked a great deal of conversation on the topic of whether he is still capable of being a starting quarterback in the NFL.  After being away from the game for two years, many see him as only a backup quarterback, Wildcat quarterback, or wide receiver at this point.

However, all the conversation about Vick after prison made me think about Vick before prison. 

Even before he left the game for two years, just what kind of NFL starting quarterback was he?  Had the Michael Vick experiment already failed before we ever even heard a single word about dog fighting?

After posting a passer rating of 81.6 and throwing twice as many touchdowns as interceptions to earn a trip to the Pro Bowl in his first year as a full-time starter in 2002, Vick’s passing regressed rather than progressed.

Vick missed most of the 2003 season due to injury.  Upon his return to health from 2004 to 2006, Vick’s interception rate climbed and his production through the air declined instead of improved—which means Vick is still waiting to have his first season with at least 3,000 passing yards. 

Vick’s passer rating fell to 78.1 in 2004, and then fell again to 73.1 in 2004 before improving somewhat to 75.7 in 2006 to perfectly match is career passer rating through six seasons in the NFL.

Now obviously there has always been a lot more to Vick’s appeal than his passing, and he did manage to rush for 902 yards in 2004 and 1,039 yards in 2006.  

However, I think it is fairly clear that Vick never developed into the passer that the Falcons had hoped he would.  After all, they traded the first- and second-round picks used by the Chargers to draft LaDainian Tomlinson and Drew Brees for the right to draft Vick first overall in the 2001 NFL Draft.

Vick’s defenders will naturally argue that the Falcons never gave Vick enough quality receivers to succeed as a passer.

That defense doesn’t quite sit right me however, knowing that Vick had a four-time Pro Bowl tight end in Alge Crumpler and that the Falcons used two first-round picks to draft wide receivers to catch passes from Vick.

Roddy White in particular has had over 80 receptions and over 1,200 yards in each of the two seasons after Vick left the team, which earned him a Pro Bowl selection in 2008.

Vick’s defenders will argue that it was just unfortunate for Vick that White did not develop into a quality wide receiver until after he was gone, making sure to mention that Vick was not at fault for White’s lack of production in his first two years in the league.

It’s certainly not uncommon for wide receivers to take some time before exploding on the stat sheet.  After all, White’s fellow 2005 NFL Draft classman Braylon Edwards didn’t break the 80 reception and 1,200 yard threshold until his third year in the league.

Roy Williams and Lee Evans, who entered the league the year before White and Edwards did, didn’t hit those marks until their third season in the league either.

As the proverbial coup de grace, Vick’s defenders will point out that Michael Jenkins’ production never really improved all that much as he only managed 50 receptions and 777 yards even with Matt Ryan throwing him passes in 2008 (compared to bests with Vick of 39 receptions in 2006 and 508 yards in 2005).

In other words, if Vick was holding his wide receivers back, why didn’t Jenkins improve significantly too?

However, to better understand the situation with the wide receivers in Atlanta before and after the whole dog fighting thing, we need to take a closer look at the career progressions of Jenkins and White.

While the increase in Jenkins’ receptions from 36 and 39 in 2005 and 2006 to 53 and 50 in 2007 and 2008 might seem minor to some, the real improvement can be found in Jenkins’ catch rate.

A receiver’s catch rate is the percentage of passes thrown to him that he catches.  It is an important statistic to consider since it is unrealistic to expect a receiver to be as productive with fewer passes thrown to him because he is not the primary option or spending more plays on the bench.

A receiver’s catch rate in reality belongs to both he and his quarterback just like a quarterback’s completion percentage is shared between him and his receivers.  Whether a pass falls incomplete because of a dropped pass or a poor throw, it is an incompletion.

In three seasons with Vick, Jenkins had catch rates of 35.0%, 50.7%, and 47.0%.  In two seasons after Vick, Jenkins had catch rates of 62.4% and 61.7%.

So did Jenkins develop in his fourth season into a wide receiver who could finally hang onto passes?  Or did Jenkins find himself going after passes that were more accurately thrown?

In two seasons with Vick, White had catch rates of 42.6% and 46.9%.  In two seasons after Vick, White had catch rates of 60.6% and 59.5%.

Is it just a coincidence that both of Vick’s starting wide receivers saw their catch rates increase dramatically the very season after he left?  Or does Vick’s reputation for struggling with accuracy down the field come into play here?

Vick’s defenders will certainly be quick to remind me of the career progressions of Braylon Edwards, Roy Williams and Lee Evans that I already mentioned earlier.

The problem is Edwards, Williams, and Evans didn’t see such dramatic increases in their catch rates, meaning their increases in production had more to do with an increase in passes thrown to them.

Edwards’ catch rate of 52.3% in his third season, when he caught 80 passes for 1,289 yards, was only 3.5% higher than his catch rate the year before (48.8%) and actually lower than his catch rate during his rookie season (54.2%).

Similarly Evans’ catch rate of 59.9% in his third season, when he caught 82 passes for 1,292 yards, was only 4.1% higher than his catch rate the year before (55.8%) and lower than his catch rate during his rookie year (64.0%).

Williams’ catch rate of 54.3% in his third season, when he caught 82 passes for 1,310 yards,  was better than in either of first two seasons in the league, but he only saw an improvement of 6.4% over his prior best of 47.9%.

White and Jenkins saw improvements of 13.7% and 11.7% respectively in 2007 compared to their prior bests with Vick.  Remember that was the season when Joey Harrington, Chris Redman, and Byron Leftwich quarterbacked the Falcons by committee.

Has the dramatic increase in catch rate experienced by White and Jenkins been something fairly common?

I decided to dig deeper by looking at the first four seasons of every wide receiver drafted in the first round from the 2000 NFL Draft to the 2005 NFL Draft. 

That gave me 25 wide receivers in all (20 of which were not already mentioned) after throwing out five wide receivers who busted out too quickly for them to be relevant in this context.

Out of those 25 wide receivers, there was only one wide receiver other than White and Jenkins who saw his catch rate increase by 10% or more in his third or fourth season compared to his prior best: Peter Warrick.

Warrick’s catch rate increased to 63.9% in his third season by 12.8% over his prior best of 51.1%, which he achieved the year before.  His catch rate held at that level for two more seasons (64.2% and 64.7%) before falling to 47.8% in his sixth and final season in the league.

What’s interesting about Warrick, and where he differs from White and Jenkins, is that he actually caught fewer passes in his third season in spite of his significantly higher catch rate. 

Warrick caught 70 passes with his catch rate of 51.1% in his second year before catching 53 passes with his catch rate of 63.9% in his third year.

Warrick was thrown 137 passes in his second year but only 83 passes in his third year.  Why?

Well in 2001 (Warrick’s second season), Chad Johnson was a rookie who only started three games and saw 60 passes thrown his way.

The following year, Johnson saw 137 passes thrown his way, which he turned into 69 receptions and 1,166 yards.

So did Warrick get better at hauling in passes in his third year, or was he simply more efficient in a secondary role with Johnson taking the best coverage away from him—and perhaps some of the desperate and forced passes quarterbacks usually reserve for their most trusted target?

The only other wide receiver out of the 25 to come close to the 10% improvement threshold was Freddie Mitchell.  He saw an improvement of 9.3% in his third season right before seeing a decline of 9.3% in his fourth and final season in the NFL.

It seems to me that the improvement White and Jenkins saw in their catch rates just as soon as Vick left was rare at that stage in their careers.

To be fair to Vick however, catch rates, like completion percentages, are not just about how accurately passes are thrown and how consistently they are held onto, but also the pass selection.

A more conservative passing game built on shorter and safer passes will produce a higher catch rate than a more aggressive passing game built on longer and riskier passes.

White and Jenkins did see their receiving yards per pass (the equivalent of YPA for quarterbacks) increase after Vick, but not by unheard of amounts.

Jenkins’ yards-per-pass average in 2007 of 6.3 was actually lower than his best season with Vick (7.2), though higher than his final season with Vick (5.3) and his first season with Vick (6.0).

Of course with Matt Ryan’s arrival in 2008, Jenkins’ yards-per-pass average rose to 9.6.

I didn’t want to rely completely on comparing Vick’s top wide receivers before and after his departure given the lingering doubt introduced by the possibility of rare but not impossible career progression from both White and Jenkins and the potential issue of passing style.

I decided to compare how Vick’s receiving corps as a whole, including tight ends and backs, fared with Vick and his backups in the same seasons.

If Vick was truly held down by poor receivers, then at the very least we should expect to see him prove himself against his backups by making the most of what they had in common.

In 2002, the Falcons receivers had a combined catch rate of 54.9% and yards-per-pass average of 7.0 with Vick.  They had a 64.9% catch rate and 7.9 yards-per-pass average with his backup, Doug Johnson.

In 2003, the Falcons receivers combined for a catch rate of 50.0% and 5.9 yards per pass with Vick.  They had a 56.0% catch rate and averaged 6.8 yards per pass with Johnson.

In 2004, Vick managed to get the best of his new backup, Matt Schaub, with the Falcons receivers posting a 56.4% catch rate and 7.2 yards-per-pass average with him compared to a 47.1% catch rate and 4.7 yards-per-pass average with Schaub.

However, it must be mentioned that Matt Schaub was a rookie in 2004.

The following year in 2005, Vick produced a higher catch rate from the Falcons receivers (55.3% vs. 51.6%), but Schaub clearly beat Vick when it came to producing yards per pass from the Falcons receivers (7.7 vs. 6.2).

In 2006, Schaub easily bested Vick in both categories, with the Falcons receivers catching 66.7% of the passes from Schaub compared to 52.6% of the passes from Vick and averaging 7.7 yards per pass from Schaub compared to 6.4 yards per pass from Vick.

Overall from 2005 to 2006, Schaub beat Vick in both categories after his rookie season based on a collective catch rate of 56.0% and a yards-per-pass average of 7.7 on his passes compared to ones of 53.9% and 6.3 on Vick’s passes over the two-year span.

It’s also worth noting that in 2007, both Harrington and Redman produced catch rates and yards-per-pass averages for the Falcons receivers that met or exceeded those with Vick in the previous two seasons (61.8% and 59.7%, and 6.4 and 7.2 respectively).  

The catch rate on Leftwich passes was very Vick-like (55.2%), but the yards-per-pass average was truly awful (4.8).

I think that together, all of this information points rather clearly to Vick not being a very good passer regardless of the level of talent around him. 

Not only did his top wide receivers seem to improve rather dramatically just as he was taken out of the picture in an abnormal way, but his receiving core as a group consistently did better with Vick’s backups so long as the backup wasn’t a rookie.

Now I completely realize that Vick’s value as a quarterback in the NFL goes well beyond his passing ability.  Beyond even his individual rushing statistics, there is the impact he has on opposing defenses in terms of how he forces them to account for him.

The problem is that impact is supposed to open up things for himself in the passing game, so I can only wonder what Vick would look like as a passer without that scrambling ability of his.

I’ve long believed that scrambling for the sake of scrambling is not a formula for long-term success in the NFL.  Scrambling has its place as a supplement to the throws a quarterback makes, but not as a replacement. 

Quarterbacks who leave the pocket to buy more time can enhance their passing with their legs, but those who opt to tuck it and run time after time will not enjoy long term success regardless of their 40 time.

There may be some short-term success as opposing defenses scramble themselves a bit to react to unseen speed at the position, but they will figure out how to handle it soon enough.

I took a look at the Falcons’ scoring from season to season, and that seemed to confirm my thoughts.

Before Vick assumed full-time starting duties, the Falcons ranked 23rd in points scored for the 2001 season with Vick starting only two games.

In 2002, the Falcons ranked 5th in points scored during Vick’s first season as a full-time starter.

In 2003, Vick missed all but 4 starts and the Falcons ranked 20th in points scored.

Vick’s initial impact during his first Pro Bowl season in 2002 seems evident.  However, the Vick difference in 2003 would be severely exaggerated using these rankings alone.

The Falcons averaged 19.5 points per game in Vick’s four starts in 2003 and they averaged 18.4 points per game in their other 12 games that season.

If the Falcons were ranked separately that season with and without Vick, they would have held their 20th raking for points scored without Vick, and they would have only moved up three spots to 17th place with Vick.

Furthmore, excluding touchdowns scored by defense and special teams, the Falcons offense specifically actually averaged more points per game with Vick's backups (17.3) than it did with Vick (16.3) in 2003.

The Falcons were never able to get back into the top 5 or even top 10 for scoring with Vick, ranking 16th, 14th, and 25th from 2004 to 2006.

In 2007, the Falcons fell farther to 29th under the direction of the Harrington, Redman, and Leftwich committee, but is falling from 25th to 29th really all that significant considering?

Also consider that the Falcons rushing game (excluding rushes by quarterbacks) lost over 400 total yards and 0.5 yards per carry in 2007 compared to in 2006 after doing just fine back in 2003 with Vick out for most of the season.

The absence of the Vick factor might have had something to do with that in all fairness, but while the total yards and yards-per-carry average of lead rusher Warrick Dunn dropped off quite a bit (from 1,140 and 4.0 to 720 and 3.2), the total yards and yards-per-carry average of backup extraordinaire Jerious Norwood held up rather well (from 633 and 6.4 to 613 and 6.0).

Keep in mind that Dunn turned 32 at the end of the 2006 season.

So was Vick a worthy NFL starting quarterback...even before he left the game for two years to spend his days in a prison cell?  I suppose that depends on your opinion of the wide array of quarterbacks who seemed to do about as well or better than Vick in his place.

One can certainly make an argument for the worthiness of Matt Schaub, but then again Schaub’s career was built on how well he filled in for Vick in limited action.

One also has to wonder how well Schaub would be playing without the services of Andre Johnson, why his former backup Sage Rosenfels seemed to consistently match him, and even how David Carr might have fared if only he could learn to release the ball before he found himself on his back.

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