All six of the notable injuries that Michael Vick has sustained since the beginning of last season have come in the pocket. The broken ribs against the Cardinals; the bruised hand against the Giants; the concussion against the Falcons; the finger injury against the 49ers; and the thumb and rib injuries this preseason all happened inside the numbers.
It is the main counterpoint to those suggesting Vick is being reckless. His high-wire stylings in the open field is not the issue. All the knockout blows have come from traditional play.
Missed in this debate is the fact that it is Vick’s game within the pocket that has proven reckless. It is the movements in the cage that are deciding success or failure, big hit or safe escape, smooth connect or batted ball. It was his response to pressure that helped put him in the sights of the Patriots’ Jermaine Cunningham, and led to his hand banging off the back of Jason Kelce‘s helmet.
“It really is an art form,” said Marty Mornhinweg, who has tirelessly worked with Vick to teach him the finer points of a most unnatural dance.
“The first thing he did when he got here is he evolved so quickly with his work within the pocket. And you need to stay disciplined within your movements. And then when you get into open air, your natural ability takes over. That’s the general thought with Mike, and he’s worked very, very hard to get to where he’s at with his pocket passing.”
As we have seen with Vick since he arrived in Philadelphia, there is a constant struggle between the mental and physical. To possess the athletic gifts that he has but not rely on them when in danger is counter-intuitive. The thing is, when does being in the pocket not feel like being in danger? Lead-footed signal-callers like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have developed a timer; learned to side-step their way past the oncoming herd and when all else fails, duck-and-cover. Vick has always opted to simply turn on the burner.
“For a guy like Michael who is incredibly gifted, it’s easy to take a shortcut and rely on your athleticism when things aren’t going completely perfect in the pocket,” said Evan Mathis. “If there’s a little bit of pressure or if he thinks there’s a blitz coming, the old Michael would just start running. But he’s learning to trust the pocket and letting the play unfold the way that it’s supposed to, and not rely on his athleticism to make a play unless it’s a last resort.”
Even though Vick set a career-high in interceptions (14) last season and saw his numbers dip almost across the board, Mornhinweg insists that Vick was a better quarterback in 2011 then he was when he was garnering some MVP consideration in 2010. What he likely means is that the 10-year pro had a better understanding of the position than he ever had, it just didn’t translate. He is a veteran trying to reinvent himself, and there are subtleties to the pocket game that have to be learned.
According to Football Outsiders Almanac, 24 percent of the Eagles pass plays last year had the quarterback out of the pocket. That was the highest percentage in the NFL. And still, Vick had 19 balls tipped at the line of scrimmage, or once every 22 attempts, according to quarterback coach Doug Pederson. Drew Brees, by comparison, who is also 6-foot, had just six tipped passes in 2011, or once every 110 attempts.
A lot of that comes down to finding passing lanes. The key?
“Knowing where your receiver is going to end up and knowing what type of ball you need to throw,” said Trent Edwards. “If you’re throwing a deep cross and they’re coming from your right to left, and you see maybe a little window between the tackle and the end, you might need a subtle slide to the left to be able to hit the throw.
“[Vick] is not short but I wouldn’t say he is the tallest quarterback in the league. There are some tall D-linemen in the league and I think he does a good job of knowing where guys are, knowing where they’re going to end up, and sliding and making those throws.”
The belief, or at least the hope internally, is that Vick has digested these various elements and that they are now second nature to him. This could be the year when the athleticism meets the cerebral. But because he hardly played this preseason — due to injuries sustained in the pocket, mind you — nobody is totally certain about what Michael Vick they’ll see.
“I can sit here and talk all day about the little nuances that I’ve learned,” said Vick. “It’s all about going out there and putting it all together on the football field.”
Added Mornhinweg: “We’ll see. I hope he does a better job. He’s been drilled. He wants to do that. We’ll see what happens here in the first few games.”