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Learning Swerve
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Springtime, and they're dancing for joy on Peachtree Street. That happens when your team drafts the Next Michael. But what about next fall, when it begins to sink in that the First Michael took seven years to win a ring?

The fact that Michael Vick was the most exciting player in college football last season does not-repeat, not-mean he's close to being ready to run an NFL offense. Everybody in Georgia, from Dan Reeves to Jimmy Carter, knows that. Accordingly, the Falcons' master plan calls for Vick to sit behind 13-year vet Chris Chandler to learn Reeves' complex system. After being burned by rushing John Elway as a rookie in 1983, Reeves knows the dangers of playing with fire.

And yet, temptation beckons. "We'll go at Michael's pace," says Falcons QB coach Jack Burns, repeating the company line. "But we won't go at a snail's pace," he adds, expressing his barely containable eagerness to unleash MV. "This is an opportunity to dream a little bit and let your creativity run wild."

Steady there, cautions 49ers GM Bill Walsh: "Michael Vick's future depends on one thing-the guidance he gets between the day he was drafted and the day he is asked to step in and take over."

To his credit, the subject of everybody's impatience seems willing to wait. "Coach Reeves told me they had a plan, and I'm looking forward to it," Vick says. "Once I learn the offense and feel comfortable, I don't think there will be any differences compared to the performances you saw when I was in Blacksburg. There will be no stopping me." But Burns vows the Falcons won't let Vick become another Kordell Stewart, who never developed as a passer because his coaches let him rely so heavily on his running.

The Falcons are already devising ways to use Vick's running ability. Burns says he may insert Vick on third downs and in the red zone. He may also add some option plays and formations that include both Vick and Chandler. "Facing Vick adds an awful lot of pressure to this division," says Carolina coach George Seifert. "You add that kind of player on an artificial surface, and it gives them a dynamic that can cause fits."

Defensive coordinators around the league will have to burn extra midnight oil to prepare for the Falcons' new offensive weapon. Teams like the Saints will have to tone down their wild pass rush or risk watching him run by them all day long. Vick's cannon-arm, though it's still a work in progress, will stretch D's deep and soften the line of scrimmage for Jamal Anderson.

Perhaps the biggest short-term challenge facing the Falcons will be to control the flood of unrealistic expectations Vick has raised. Reeves says that on his way to work the morning after the draft, countless fans shot him the thumbs-up sign-surely a different message than the dirty-bird he saw from fans last fall.

Still, you gotta walk before you can fly.

This article appears in the May 14 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

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