This story appears in the Sept. 5 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
IN THE COURTYARD outside Unit 667, Michael Vick's childhood home in the notorious Ridley Circle housing project of Newport News, Va., residents remain tortured by any number of inaccessible escape routes. Buses roar past on Ivy Avenue without stopping. The sky is filled with jets leaving Norfolk Airport. A nearby canal used by fishing boats to reach Chesapeake Bay is protected by barbed wire and no-trespassing signs. Even spiritual escape appears unavailable: Access to the abandoned Zion Church, a block over on Marshall Avenue, has been blocked by a long 2-by-4 nailed haphazardly across the ornate doors of the sanctuary.
Ridley's collection of narrow two-story buildings, each packed with eight units, has been painted light blue over the original brown. There's less grass, replaced by mostly sand and dirt, cigarette butts, bottle caps and broken shards of glass that sparkle in the sunlight. Other than that, the Circle remains nearly identical to the place where an 8-year-old Vick first picked up a football with escape on his mind and, instead, started a revolution.
Behind each Ridley unit are cement patios where, Vick says, the drunks and old-timers would hang out. When he needed cash, Vick would wander into the courtyard, football in hand, and bet the men that he could throw the pigskin over any one of the 120-foot-long buildings they chose. They would laugh, right up until the football left his hand. "I could throw a football the first time I picked one up as a little kid, and I'll be able to throw it when I'm 70," says Vick. "The second anyone doubted me or my arm, it was payday."
He's been defying doubters ever since.
Parents and teammates at Ferguson High School nearly revolted when Vick entered the starting lineup as a freshman. The next week he threw for 433 yards and four TDs. As a redshirt freshman at Virginia Tech, he led the nation with a passing efficiency rating of 180.37 (at the time the second-highest ever in the FBS) while taking the undefeated Hokies to the 2000 BCS championship game. Two years later, Vick, the first black quarterback ever taken No. 1 in the draft, became the first visiting quarterback in NFL history to win a playoff game at Lambeau Field. "I brought to the table what everyone is looking for now in a quarterback," he says. "I revolutionized the position."
Whether the NFL is ready for that revolution remains to be seen. In 2010, after an 18-month prison term for federal dogfighting crimes and a three-year layoff from the most difficult position in sports, Vick returned with a vengeance, posting one of the best all-around seasons in NFL history. Last year, he became just the second quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards, run for 500 and maintain a 100-plus passer rating. Hall of Famer Steve Young did it in 1992, but he played in all 16 games. Vick needed only 12.
In that time span, he has not only turned the Eagles into a Super Bowl favorite but might also have accomplished something even more significant: devising a game plan to save the No Fun League from itself.
Suddenly, it's hard to imagine the NFL moving forward without Vick. His reincarnation as a disciplined, accurate pocket passer and field general, combined with his gift for improvisational magic, is the vital evolutionary leap in quarterbacking needed to bridge a growing chasm in the game. The NFL rescued Vick. Now he's poised to return the favor.
"If Vick helps inspire this change, people will have to start looking at his influence on the larger game in a completely different light," says noted QB guru Steve Clarkson. "He really could end up like Michael Jordan -- as the first of something brand-new."
WE'VE HEARD ALL this before, though. During Vick's time in Atlanta, he was the most dynamic talent in the NFL and for a time the league's highest-paid player. In his first four seasons as a full-time starter, he was named to three Pro Bowls, and by 2004 Vick had the Falcons in the NFC championship game -- all while operating in schemes that often hindered his rare gifts instead of accentuating them. Until 2004, Vick ran Dan Reeves' run-oriented offense, an antiquated system incorporating elements dating back to the 1970s. He was then asked by Jim Mora to do a 180 and switch to the West Coast. "It was wearing me down," says Vick. "I had lost confidence and was losing my love of the game. Football wasn't fun anymore. If I had stayed in Atlanta, I'd be a year or two away from retiring."
It wasn't just the schemes that were stopping Vick from becoming a true pioneering force.
His lightning-quick release, arm strength and unmatched explosiveness in the open field had always kept him one step ahead of defenses. If he lacked the focus and commitment to perfect his fundamentals and develop the mental side of his game, it was largely because, well, he didn't have to. "He was so talented and the game came so easy for him that he didn't understand the need to spend the time on his preparation," says Frank Beamer, his coach at Virginia Tech.
Prison took care of that. When he entered Leavenworth in 2008, Vick was perhaps too far ahead of the game. While he was inside, the game caught up. To counter ferocious pressure from zone blitzing and the cover 2, quarterbacks who could escape and keep plays alive with their feet became a necessity. The spread offense and the Wildcat, featuring the modern, hybrid athletic style that Vick embodied, became all the rage. In the past six seasons, Ben Roethlisberger has taken the Steelers to three Super Bowls using Vick's template. In April, when the Panthers drafted Cam Newton No. 1 overall, coach Ron Rivera said what impressed him the most about the Auburn quarterback was his ability to hurt opponents with his arm and his legs.
"There has been a change in the entire philosophy of football," says Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. "You can hardly watch a high school game today without seeing empty backfields, spread-out receivers and teams throwing 70 percent of the time. The quarterbacks are more
gifted and the game is wide open."
Inside Leavenworth, Vick watched as a style of play he popularized blossomed in his
absence. With little more than his thoughts to
fill 548 days behind bars, Vick told Tommy Reamon, his high school coach and mentor, that he replayed, on an endless 24-hour loop, every play, every misstep and every wasted
opportunity of his pro career. "You get some money and some leeway, and it's just human nature that you keep taking it a step further and a step further," says Vick about his unraveling in Atlanta. "The next thing you know, you're so deeply involved that there's no way out. I learned a lot about myself in prison, and I held my head high and said, 'I'm gonna work to get back everything I lost.'"
TWENTY-SIX TEAMS stated publicly that they wanted nothing to do with Vick upon his 2009 release from prison. Two weeks after his reinstatement by commissioner Roger Goodell, Vick was growing frustrated and almost jumped at a low-ball offer from the Bengals. Instead, he showed patience and bided his time. Shortly after, the Eagles came calling -- even though they were one of the teams that had stated they had no interest in signing him. The choice was easy. He arrived in Philly 20 pounds overweight, without his explosive burst of speed and masking a crisis of confidence that lingered from his final season in Atlanta. What might have been a nightmare scenario for any other athlete ended up being exactly what Vick needed. Without those physical tools to fall back on, he was forced to develop as a quarterback.
Vick paid his football penance in 30-minute increments, before and after every practice, in the hellish Pennsylvania summer heat. Eagles offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg set out to rebuild Vick's mental approach, throwing fundamentals and endurance. Together they would create Vick 2.0, smarter and more efficient than the error-prone original.
The drills were monotonous. Mornhinweg would take a small net on a pole and go to various spots on the field. Vick would have to swish several in a row at each location. Then the quarterback would navigate a series of cones or dummies, gather himself back inside the pocket, execute a clean, balanced drop, locate the net and fill it again. He'd get just enough of a break to dry the sweat off his face and hands before moving on to another football version of Wipeout.
Week after week, in their own private two-a-days, Mornhinweg and Vick rewired the quarterback's muscle memory, forcing him to learn to move first and then throw -- not the other way around. Seeing both a changed
man and an ocean of untapped potential, Mornhinweg walked up to Vick before practice late in 2009 and started asking about Vick's Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Whom would he invite? What would he say? How much fun would it be? "I'm an overweight third-string quarterback, and he's talking about the Hall of Fame?" says Vick. "Marty won't ever know how that one thing gave me so much of my
For the first time in his life, Vick was developing more faith in his preparation and fundamentals than in his athletic gifts. At the end of the 2009 season, he went back to Virginia with boxes of game film to study, another first. For his personal trainer, instead of picking a semi-celebrity with a roster full of pampered all-stars, he chose a hard-ass named Tom Anderson, who coaches with Reamon at Landstown High School in Virginia Beach, Va. Matching the no-nonsense tandem of Eagles coaches Andy Reid and Mornhinweg, Vick surrounded himself with people unafraid to tell him no. He would run through a series of grueling plyometric movements designed to increase explosiveness, and every time he'd glance up with a look of exhaustion and self-pity, Anderson would shake his head and tell him to do it again -- faster. "There was nothing magical about it," says Reamon. "We all grow differently, and this boy had to be humbled and humiliated and spend two years alone in a jail cell to get to know himself and mature as a man and a quarterback."
THE MAN WHO EMERGED from that experience was the next link in a quarterback chain that runs from Fran Tarkenton to John Elway to Steve Young to Randall Cunningham. When Kevin Kolb was knocked out of the 2010 season opener against Green Bay with a concussion, the new Vick displayed preternatural poise inside the pocket. He didn't bolt at the first sign of trouble. He stayed one step ahead of defensive stunts and disguises. He showed a mastery of Reid's complex scheme, which is designed to push the vertical limits of the West Coast offense. It was a natural fit for Vick, who found himself operating much like a point guard in basketball -- deciphering the chaos, calmly distributing the ball and calling his number only when absolutely necessary.
Tom Brady labeled this latest version of Vick "damn near impossible to stop." Vick's play proved, perhaps once and for all, that running and throwing are not mutually exclusive traits for an NFL quarterback. It also raised an important philosophical question: After 92 years, how much longer can the NFL deny that there might be more than one way for a quarterback to look and play?
Driving that point home, in a Week 10 rout of the Redskins, Vick became the first quarterback in NFL history to pass for 300 yards and four touchdowns and rush for 50 yards and two TDs in a single game. But it was his shortest throw of the night that made the biggest statement. With 6:26 left in the third quarter and the Eagles on the Redskins' 3-yard line, Philly flooded the end zone with receivers. At any point Vick could have tucked the ball and leaped into the end zone -- à la 2006. Instead, he went through his full progression, found no one open and went back through his options a second time before rifling the ball through a mail slot to Jason Avant in the back of the end zone. "Supernatural," says Clarkson.
That moment, as Vick's gifts and maturation meshed with Reid's evolving and aggressive scheme, offered a glimpse at the future of both the position and the sport. "It's not me, it's the scheme," insists Vick. "In the NFL, schemes make great quarterbacks. I love Atlanta, but I wish now I would have been drafted by the Eagles."
Great athletes are not always known for self-awareness, but the observation is astute. Had he not landed in Philadelphia, there almost surely never would have been a Vick 2.0. On most any other team and in most any other offensive scheme, he would likely have become another victim of the philosophical inversion that's choking innovation in today's game.
Because the proliferation of the spread offense in high school and college means there are fewer classic pocket passers in the pipeline, rare athletes are being forced to deny their athleticism if they get to the NFL. (If you think mobile quarterbacks are hard to keep healthy, try protecting stationary targets. Brady,
Peyton Manning, Carson Palmer, Tony Romo and Philip Rivers have all suffered serious
injuries inside the pocket.) In other words, while the thought of putting Brady or Manning in a run-heavy option offense remains utterly ridiculous, it's perfectly acceptable for teams to take game-changing, multidimensional quarterbacks like Vick, Tim Tebow and Vince Young and force them to conform to a style of play that is slowly being driven into extinction.
There won't be another Michael Vick, a hybrid quarterback so talented he can conquer the game and all its obstacles twice. If Vick isn't the revolution unto himself, he's at least clear proof of just how badly it needs to take place. Consider that the direct-snap Wildcat scheme that passes for innovation is actually a dusted-off relic invented by Pop Warner himself. Or that Bill Walsh's West Coast offense, developed in the 1970s, remains the game's last major offensive innovation. As former Ravens coach Brian Billick says, when it comes to trying new things, especially at quarterback, the NFL isn't risk averse, "it's downright paranoid."
And that paranoia is contagious. For 12 seasons in Denver, Elway chafed under the same conservative schemes that would hamper Vick in Atlanta but still managed to get to three
Super Bowls by improvising and making plays outside the pocket. Like Vick, Elway was eventually rescued -- also from the tyranny of Dan Reeves -- by an updated modern scheme. But when Elway took over the Broncos' football operations, he hired the über-conservative, defensive-minded John Fox as coach and publicly lectured Tebow on the importance of
winning games from inside the pocket.
Revolutions are never easy. Backward-leaning bosses need a shove, and ringleaders need followers. So who will follow in Vick's cleat marks? Well, Josh Freeman is flourishing in Tampa.
Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers was third in the NFL in quarterback rushing last season. And there will be a lot riding on how Newton -- who set the SEC record for passing efficiency (182.05) while rushing for 1,473 yards and 20 TDs -- develops in Carolina.
In the end, though, it will largely be up to Vick to lead. If he can become the first true hybrid quarterback to win a Super Bowl -- and force the Lawrence Welk NFL to finally embrace its inner, improvisational Thelonious Monk -- he could
alter his sport in the way that only the true greats ever do. "I've got a long way to go, and my life is still a work in progress," says Vick. "I need to get a Super Bowl ring on my finger first. But yeah, I would like to be compared to people like Ali and Jordan someday."
Ali? Jordan? Coming from an ex-con who was a backup this time last year? That would be revolutionary.
David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.