Three years ago, Vick was a chagrined third-stringer who hadn’t played football in two years because he’d been in jail; the following year, he posted a QB rating of 100.2, the 60th-highest ever, while also rushing for 676 yards and nine touchdowns.
Now, post-game press conferences are derailed by talk of benching a player who only last year was signing a six-year, $100 million contract extension—in favor of a rookie. The Eagles are Michael Vick, and Michael Vick is an enigma.
Back in 2001, when he entered the draft as a Virginia Tech sophomore—he went on to be that year’s first overall pick—he was, per Sports Illustrated, either “a magician” or a liability. Legendary San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh warned that the athleticism that made Vick so impressive—the ease with which he dodged tackles, escaped the pocket, and threw on the move; his ability to flat-out run—wasn’t the asset it seemed to be: “Ultimately, running like this in the NFL would be a negative.”
The rise of running quarterbacks like Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III, who sprinted 76 yards for a touchdown in week 6, makes Walsh’s advice seem a bit dated. But Vick’s stunningly mediocre first six seasons with the Falcons—his accuracy was poor; his QB rating stayed under 80.0—seemed to prove the veteran coach right.
Fast-forward to 2010—after pleading guilty to felony charges stemming from his involvement in an interstate dog-fighting ring; after serving nearly two years of jail time; after signing on with the Eagles as third-string quarterback; after appearing in the 10-part TV series Michael Vick Project in an attempt to “restore [his] family’s good name”—and the Wall Street Journal is hailing Vick, now the Eagles’ starter, as the “best passing QB in the league”; “nearly flawless.”
It’s hard to imagine in a season during which he’s thrown nine interceptions and just 10 touchdowns, but look at the highlight reel from his game against the Redskins that November. Vick passed for 333 yards and racked up six touchdowns that day—four passing, two rushing—including a sublimely impressive opening play that had him rolling left, with casual control, and then lofting the football long and high to DeSean Jackson, who easily sprinted the final 20 or so yards into the end zone.
Dramatic rises and gasp-inducing falls are standard for the well-known but seemingly unknowable player. Heading into this season Vick was either overrated, definitely “not an elite quarterback,” or “the most talented signal-caller in the NFL.” And the Eagles’ season has followed a similar trajectory. Three exhilarating comebacks in the first four games, followed by two straight squandered fourth-quarter leads.
Though the Eagles have reliable threats on offense—wide receivers Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson; running back LeSean McCoy, whose 623 yards are good enough for 10th in the league. But while they rack up yards, they have problems scoring points: They may be 10th in the league in overall offensive yards, but they’re 30th in points per game.
Meanwhile Vick is the only player in NFL history to average over seven yards per carry for his entire career; he is the only quarterback to rush for more than 5,000 yards; in 2010, he went from second string to starter-by-default after Kevin Kolb was concussed, to bona fide leader, taking his team to the playoffs. But this year, he’s also responsible for 14 turnovers.
Perhaps Vick and the Eagles are a perfect match after all: the talent, the potential, the disappointment.
Take the game against the Saints, an object lesson in self-defeat. Vick lost the ball on the first drive, though the Eagles recovered, setting up a 3rd and 35, and a dismal running play. (It’s worth noting that both left tackle Jason Peters and center Jason Kelce are out, which helps explain why Vick was hit on five of nine drop backs during that opening drive.) Later in the first quarter, Vick was intercepted at the goal line; the Saints returned for a touchdown, and the QB was charged with a personal foul for a low block. Near the end of the third quarter, an inventive special teams play failed spectacularly in execution: Brandon Boykin received a Saints kickoff and then lateraled to Riley Cooper, who had been lying prone in the Saints logo in the end zone. Cooper ran 94 yards for a touchdown—which was then called back because the lateral was shown, in replay, to be a forward pass.
At the end of last season, team owner Jeffrey Lurie all but promised that Reid would be fired if the Eagles didn’t improve on their 8-8 showing. And if Reid’s waffling press conferences are any indication, Vick will be benched sooner rather than later in favor of rookie Nick Foles, a decision that Reid, if he weren’t fighting for his job and looking for a few last short-term victories, might have made weeks ago. Perhaps after the fifth fumble Vick lost, against Pittsburgh, in week five. Perhaps after the loss against Atlanta, in week eight, which saw his percentage of passes completed from outside the pocket drop to 28.
However it turns out, we’ll always have this play in week 4. Reid called a time-out just before the Giants’ Lawrence Tynes put what he thought was a game-winning field goal through the uprights. In a rare, effective example of “icing the kicker,” Tynes’s second try sailed wide. If they don’t make the playoffs, as seems likely, Vick and the Eagles should be able to cherish Eli Manning’s facial expression. It’s a gift that keeps on giving.