By JUDY BATTISTA
Published: October 03, 2010
PHILADELPHIA - The long, winding corridor leading to the Eagles' locker room features the sort of décor professional sports franchises currently favor: glossy action photographs, framed newspaper clippings, heavy plaques and awards extolling the confetti-dotted moments in team history.
Donovan McNabb is featured prominently in the gallery. Until about 10 days ago, that would have provided the backdrop to his return to Philadelphia for the first time since the Eagles traded him to the Washington Redskins.
But just inside the locker room door, at least 50 journalists huddled so tightly last Wednesday that when the player they were waiting for, Michael Vick, surveyed the gathering, he could only shake his head slightly.
"Amazing," Vick whispered.
That it is.
In August 2009, on the day the Eagles welcomed Vick back to football after a two-year absence, their owner, Jeffrey Lurie, used harsh language to describe his disgust with Vick's dogfighting transgressions. That Vick might someday appear next to McNabb on the hallway highlight show was unimaginable. All the Eagles hoped to do was run a few Wildcat plays and give Vick the chance to showcase himself for other teams.
Now, Vick is Lurie's - and Coach Andy Reid's - starting quarterback. That has made the return of McNabb, who lobbied for the Eagles to sign Vick, a footnote outside Philadelphia instead of a referendum on Reid's direction-of-the-franchise decision last spring. In two and a half games, Vick has completed 60.7 percent of his passes (his previous career high was 56.4 percent in 2004) and thrown 6 touchdown passes (he had 20 in 16 games in 2006) and no interceptions (he had eight in 15 games in 2002).
"I always knew I could play better than I did," Vick said. "All I had to do was work at it and get in the right system."
That Vick's life is in order after he spent 18 months in a federal prison provides a compelling redemption story, but not a shocking one, considering the support system surrounding him. But his play - a more controlled, complete style than he exhibited even in leading Atlanta to the N.F.C. championship game in the 2004 season - has upended the Eagles' succession plan and captivated the N.F.L., stunning even those who have known and supported Vick the longest.
"I told people I thought he would be a great story and he would do the right things off the field," said the former Colts coach Tony Dungy, NBC's "Football Night in America" analyst, who counseled Vick during and after his incarceration. "But if people had pressed me and asked if I thought he could get back to this level, I would have to say probably not. I would have said he'll get a certain percentage of the way back, but how could you ever get all the way back?"
Vick said since his return that he could be a starter again. But that seemed a pie-in-the-sky proposition last season, when he was slow and rusty, third on the depth chart and attempted only 13 passes and 24 runs. After McNabb was traded in April, Vick and Dungy spoke about Vick's having to be prepared because he was one injury from starting again. Still, Dungy said he could never imagine the series of events that led to this moment: the trade of McNabb, the franchise quarterback; an injury to the heir apparent, Kevin Kolb, in the first half of the first game of the season; and Vick's improved play to force a radical change in plans.
The seeds of Vick's football renaissance were sown, in part, by McNabb. In the year they were together here, Vick said, he learned how to study film from McNabb. (Vick is a fast learner, said Jim Mora, his former coach in Atlanta, but was not a steadfast studier there.) Through McNabb's devotion to the weight room, Vick recognized the importance of lifting to ward off and heal quickly from injuries.
Vick, 30, has lost nearly 25 pounds since he first reported to the Eagles, and he weighs about 205. That has restored his breathtaking speed. His rifle arm never went away and was on display on three completions of at least 42 yards against the Jaguars last Sunday. Vick is benefiting from the Eagles' outstanding receivers like Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson. (Vick's Falcons relied on the running game.)
In practice, Reid said, Vick concentrated on consistency when he prepared to throw - his shoulder in the same spot, his knees bent the same way, no matter where he was in the pocket. That improves his accuracy, although he misfired on several pass attempts even against inferior defenses: Detroit's is ranked 30th and Jacksonville's is 29th. Luckily for him and the Eagles, the schedule is not loaded with top-tier defenses; at Tennessee, on Oct. 24, is likely to be the next tough test.
Vick's studying, though, has been crucial. Members of the Eagles organization said Vick had to be reminded to leave the training facility. The film room has become his sanctuary, and he has learned the Eagles' offense better than he did Atlanta's.
Mora said that if a play began to break down, Vick's instinct was to get "out of the gate." But the Eagles have done all they can to protect Vick, who stayed in the pocket so long last Sunday that Maclin all but suggested he scramble more often.
Just before halftime last Sunday, the Eagles sent two receivers into pass patterns, leaving eight players in to block for Vick. He waited in the pocket while Maclin shook his defender, and even when the pressure finally came, then delivered a perfect pass for a touchdown.
"In the olden days with Mike, you had to cut the field in half for him, because he wasn't going to take the time to scan the whole field and go through his progressions," said Mora, who conducted an interview with Vick for the NFL Network last week. "I think he's seeing the game better. He has a better understanding of what's going on. You see a guy who has more trust in his ability to make a play with something other than his feet."
He has more work to do. Vick has been sacked 11 times, and the Jaguars hit him at least 10 additional times, a pounding that exposes him to injury and that would eventually affect the performance of the most consistent quarterback. Reid turned McNabb, a scrambler in college, into a more traditional pocket quarterback, but Reid said last week he wanted Vick to inject his personality into the Eagles' offense. That surely includes allowing Vick to find the right balance between staying in the pocket and risking a sack, and taking off on a run. His ability to extend a play by evading a sack remains his greatest gift.
Vick was once known for generating chaos on the field with his unpredictable style, which mirrored his erratic off-the-field behavior. But in the past two weeks, as Vick has burst from the cocoon the Eagles provided for him, Mora and Dungy see a more settled, mature person, the newfound calm of his private life reflected in the more composed manner of his play. Like the pictures on the walls here, Vick is finally still.
"I have been under pressure my whole life," Vick said. "Pressure to take care of my family and a lot of other things. This is football - it's pressure. But you've also got to make light of the whole situation. That's what I try to do. There's always going to be pressure. But it brings the best out of you."