Tip Sheet: Vick can help on short stuff

The Eagles ranked 31st last season in converting on third-and-1. Michael Vick could change that. Hunter Martin/Getty Images

For those seeking another explanation why the Philadelphia Eagles signed Michael Vick, we offer this:


Philadelphia's dismal performance on third-and-short plays -- the Eagles were particularly abysmal in third-and-1 scenarios -- is a critical element of the rationale in attempting to salvage the once-banished quarterback's NFL career.

Eagles coach Andy Reid and O-coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, two of the more fertile offensive minds in the game, likely won't limit Vick to the Wildcat offense. But you can bet the two men have already been scribbling up a special Wildcat package for him. "I think we'll figure out a way to use him," Reid said jokingly last week.

In 2008, Philadelphia converted only 40 of 68 third-down snaps on which the yardage to gain was 3 yards or less (20th in NFL). On third-and-1, the Eagles were 14-for-28, and that paltry 50 percent rate ranked 31st in the league. In his 67 starts with the Falcons, Vick converted just 139 of 234 third-and-short plays, and that 59.4 percent is actually slightly worse than Philadelphia's 60.3 percent conversion rate last season. On third-and-1, however, Vick was 69-for-97 (71.1 percent), and he ran for 26 of those first downs.

"You've got one of the most dynamic players in history, and you put him back in the Wildcat offense on third-and-short," Carolina tailback DeAngelo Williams said, "and the defense, which is accustomed to teams' mostly running out of the Wildcat, is thinking like, 'Is he going to throw it or run it?' He's already got them on their heels, right? He has the ability to turn a third-and-1 situation into a 60-yard play ... and, unlike most of us [Wildcat] guys, he can do it with his legs or his arm."

During his six-year NFL career, Vick has hardly been a marksman, with a completion rate of 53.8 percent, and a top mark of 56.4 percent in 2004. But no one has debated Vick's arm strength, and his potential for throwing the football certainly adds an interesting dimension to the Wildcat.

"They've added a weapon, definitely," said Carolina defensive coordinator Ron Meeks. "Defending [the Wildcat offense] is tough enough. Defending it with Michael Vick ... that's scary stuff."

Teams rarely threw the ball from the Wildcat formation last season. DeSean Jackson logged about a dozen Wildcat plays for the Eagles in 2008. But he threw only one pass, and that was intercepted in the end zone in a 30-10 victory against Cleveland on Dec. 15. The Miami Dolphins, who ran roughly 12 percent of their snaps from the Wildcat in 2008, had tailback Ronnie Brown, the primary practitioner of the direct-snap offense, attempt only three passes.

Vick could certainly remedy the relative dearth of passing in the Wildcat formation.

"There's an element to his game that the rest of us don't have," said Williams, who has lobbied the Carolina staff to allow him to throw. "I'm sure the Eagles will take full advantage of that ability."

Williams actually operated the Wildcat formation, or a derivative of it, in a 2006 win at Atlanta. That was before Darren McFadden sprung the Wildcat on the college game at the University of Arkansas and before the Dolphins' Brown popularized it last season. Fourteen teams had some version of the Wildcat offense in their playbooks in the NFL last season. The common denominator for Williams and Brown: veteran assistant Dan Henning, who was offensive coordinator for the Panthers in 2006 and works for the Dolphins now in the same capacity.

In that 2006 game, starting quarterback Jake Delhomme was injured, and Chris Weinke, who threw only seven passes in the contest, got the start. Henning made up for Delhomme's absence by using Williams as a Wildcat back, especially on third-and-short. Williams ran nine times on third down, converting seven times.

Still, for all of his athletic acumen, Vick will experience a dicey familiarization period with the Wildcat offense, according to Williams, Brown, McFadden (now with the Oakland Raiders) and others who have operated it.

"The reads are a lot different, and you're working with fewer plays," Williams said.

Said McFadden: "Running from [the Wildcat], into the line of scrimmage, isn't the same thing as scrambling out of the pocket, running into a defense that's strung out all over the place. If anyone can do it, Vick can. But I think it will take a little while for him to feel totally comfortable with it."

Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.