Friday, July 27, 2007

Michael Vick: A Rumination in 3 Acts


Act 1: The capture of our imagination

Seven years ago, when I was firmly entrenched in my formative sports years, I was The Sugar Bowl at my grandpa's house; I've never been much of a college football guy. (my dad went to Dartmouth; the local team is the Stanford Cardinal. Do the math. Although the Cardinal were actually good that year. But I digress.) Anyway, pretty much all I knew about college football was that Florida State was going to roll over whoever they were playing, and I vaguely knew that their star player, Peter Warrick, was talented but had encountered some serious off-field trouble.

Then I saw Michael Vick run. There was no semblance of an offensive set, receivers running routes, anything like that. Virginia Tech made no effort to pretend that their team was equal to Florida State; there was just Michael Vick. And this wasn't like Steve or Vince Young, running quarterbacks who bookended Vick. Young and Young ran bootleg or option plays, with their runs being efficient, deadly straight-ahead options that was nearly unstoppable, since on any given play they could get the snap and quickly make a run. Michael Vick wasn't running an option, or anything that looked like an 11-man football play-he was just on the playground. 3 or 4 Florida State defenders would get into the backfield, the play would breakdown, and it would just be Michael Vick, playing sandlot football against the best team in the country. And it worked. They just couldn't stop him.

Of course, Virginia Tech lost that game, but like the Florida/Ohio State basketball championship game seven years later, a great program had the show stolen from them by a singular talent who ignited our imaginations like no athlete ever had before.

First, there was the way he ran. Ever since Mr. Knute Rockne started fooling around with the forward pass, running has become more of a subtle pleasure, best appreciated by those who truly understand the sport, such as a batter who sees a lot of pitches in baseball, a good help-side defender in basketball, or soccer. (Translation-it's boring, and anyone who tells you it's not is just trying to sound smarter than you are.) Much like the difference between a .250 and a .300 hitter in baseball is one hit every two weeks, the difference between LaDanian Tomlinson and Mike Bell is 9/10ths of a yard every carry. Like Mr. Pacino said, it's a game of inches. Those couple of feet cost an owner about $10 million every year, mean the difference between relative anonymity and being almost as "now" as David Beckham, and can win a team football games. It's an impossibility to consistently evade 11 of the best athletes in the world when your only possible destination is forward, and thus the running back as we have come to know him does not traffic in the jaw-dropping-in 95 games 2,050 career carries, LaDanian Tomlinson has only 57 runs of more than 20 yards. To borrow a line often used about Tim Duncan, an NFL running back is not consistently spectacular, but spectacularly consistent. The difference between mediocre and great is one extra cut, one little step, the ability to fall forward instead of backward. This is what we've come to know as football fans, and when we see a running back in the NFL, we know to look for that one extra step.


Well, Michael Vick says that you can take your one extra step and shove it straight up your ass. Michael Vick traffics in the spectacular. While the passing game is by nature improvisational, the running game is by nature a scripted affair-run to the left, go forward as far as you can, and run into defenders 4-5 yards later, moving sideways only when absolutely necessary. When a running back starts to run, the outcome is all but assured. When Michael Vick starts to run, all bets are off. The air goes out of the stadium. The opposing coach's heart begins to pump. The Defensive Coordinator starts to look like a Russian Sargent in Enemy At The Gates, explaining in vain to his superior that he knew what was coming but was utterly powerless to stop it. YouTube can explain better than I just what happens when Number 7 decides to run, but needless to say, it is the antithesis of what we have come to know as the running game in the NFL. In 1/4th of LaDanian's career carries, Vick already has 44 runs of 20+ yards; he can make defenders literally run into each other; his runs that begin in the left side of the field can often end up all the way on the other side, with moves in-between that leave the best athletes in the world completely befuddled. When he runs the ball, Michael Vick is consistently spectacular. He is too impossibly fast, too quick, can change directions at the bat of an eye. He could give a shit about falling forward or stretching for the extra inch-he's thinking about the end zone, the spectacular, the moment that takes the air out of our lungs, and all that stand between him and the paint are nothing more than obstacles.

And of course, Michael isn't even a running back. He's a quarterback, who along with having the athletic ability to completely revolutionize the most important position, had the gift originally required to play it the way Mr. Rockne envisioned. And unlike Vince Young, he doesn't throw the ball like someone who has never quite come to terms with the fact that his primary job is to throw the football. He doesn't even throw like Matt Leinart or Drew Brees, who know where they want to put the ball but wish they had a better way to get it there. Simply put, Michael Vick has a cannon. The ball comes out of his hand on a mission, beautifully spiraling through the air like it has a divine purpose, although it too often falls to earth without having completed it. Ryan Leaf and JaMarcus Russell were drafted No. 2 and No. 1 overall in the draft for having arms like that; Michael possessed one as an ancillary gift.

As a sports fan, we learn to adjust to the subtlety of dominance. Although sports video games continue to delude us as to what makes an athlete great(I believe that Stromile Swift owes at least $6 million dollars to NBA Live), often the case is that greatness is born from the traits we overlook when searching for greatness. In baseball, we look first and foremost for pitchers that throw the hardest, or have the biggest breaking balls, or throw with the best control, or are the tallest, or have the cleanest mechanics; the most dominant pitcher of the last 5 years, Johan Santana, and the great ace before him, Pedro Martinez, greatest strengths were being able to make their change-ups look exactly like their fastballs, and Brad Penny, one of the National League's best pitchers, became an exponentially better pitcher when he stopped throwing so hard. Today's Giants-Marlins game featured Kyle Vanden Hurk, a tall right-hander with perfect mechanics who hit 98 mph with his fastball, and Barry Zito, an easygoing left-hander with the biggest-breaking curveball in the league. In 9 combined innings, they gave up 12 earned runs. Meanwhile, 43-year old Jamie Moyer, who can barely hit 80 with his fastball, gave up 0 earned runs in 7 innings.

The best hitter since Ted Williams, Barry Bonds, is about to become the all-time home run leader, and is the only member of the 500-500 club. He also possesses more than 10 Gold Gloves. Yet his most valuable asset-the trait that allowed him to become indisputably the best player of the last 20 years-is not his speed, hands, bat speed, or strength, but his ability to instantly tell where a pitch will be.

In basketball, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird's great strength was not their size, speed, or shooting ability, but their ability to know exactly where their teammates were at all times. Michael Jordan was never the fastest, biggest, or purest shooter, but he combined his abilities perfectly in order to become the greatest player in the history of the game. Dwayne Wade's greatest strength is not his ability to dunk or shoot, but his ability to draw fouls and hit free throws. Steve Nash is far from the fastest point guard in the league, but he is the league's best point guard due to his ability to thread the needle on pick-and-rolls better than anyone else in the league. Last year's MVP, Dirk Nowitzki, is often the slowest player on the floor, is weaker than most all other men his size, and rarely even shoots his signature 3-point shot. Instead, he dominates with an ugly but effective array of high-post fade-aways from near the top of the key. Wayne Gretzky, who has the build of an accountant and isn't particularly quick to boot, is the greatest player ever in a hugely physical sport because of his ability to see the players on the ice like a neurosurgeon sees a brain.

Roger Federer is the greatest tennis player of all time not because he serves as fast as Andy Roddick, runs as fast as Rafael Nadal, or makes as few errors as James Blake, but has achieved a Jordan-like blend of skills that allows him to dispatch of any player who relies on only one. Muhammad Ali and Floyd Marywether Jr. were both boastful men whose greatest strength in a sport seemingly predicated on beating your opponent to the point where he literally cannot get up was their ability to avoid punishment.

And then, of course, there's football. Shaun Alexander is ten times the back that Tatum Bell is, not because he's faster, but because he has the vision to see blocks before they happen. Jerry Rice was never the fastest or tallest wide receiver, but he moved with an indefinable grace that made him all but impossible to stop. Joe Montana was better than Dan Marino because of his ability, whether it was luck or skill, to make passes at the right time. Peyton Manning is the best player in a league of the best athletes in the world because of, of all things, his eyes.

The subtlety of greatness is a compromise we have long learned to live with as fans; if we want to see true greatness, we must first learn to understand it, which is what we are told every time we see a team with a great left tackle win the Super Bowl, the Spurs or Pistons win the NBA championship, Brandon Webb wins the Cy Young award, or Shaun Alexander wins the NFL MVP. The level of talent is so impossibly high at the highest levels of sport that dominance by sheer talent is impossible; if one wishes to be great among greatness, it must be done with nuance and intelligence over sheer ability. Fans of Bo Jackson will attest to this.

We have become used to compromise when it comes to athletes: The pitchers who throw the hardest are the ones who can't throw strikes. The biggest guys on the basketball court can't shoot. Running quarterbacks like Vince Young throw like a girl.

But we accept that fact only grudgingly, and so we reserve a special place in our hearts for those athletes who capture our imaginations and change the rules by dominating not through subtlety, but through something special and obvious enough that the uninitiated will recognize it for what it is: true greatness. I saw it when I was in 1st grade, and Ken Griffey Jr., ran faster than everyone, hit further than everyone, and could make catches nobody else could dream of making. I see it whenever I pick up one of my two biographies of Sandy Koufax, and read about his fastball that made the hair on the back of your neck stand up, and his curveball that fell like a fallen angel, and the way he could put either pitch on a dime. You can throw out all the stats you want, but Roger Clemens will never capture our imaginations Sandy did. We saw it in Lawrence Taylor, when he moved at a speed nobody his size was supposed to be able to move in pursuit of the blind side of an unsuspecting quarterback. We see it in golf, when the man who redefined what kind of abilities a golfer should have also decided to become the best golfer of all time.

During my formative years, I found three athletes who were able to capture my imagination. The first was Mark Prior. Don't need to say much more on that subject. The second was LeBron James, who you will hear much, much, much more about on this blog. The third was Michael Vick, who I fear I may be losing.

Act 2: Looking at a Plateau, Seeing a Mountain

It's easy to forget this now, but Michael came out of the gate red-hot. He took the bottom-dwelling Falcons to the playoffs immediately, even taking them to the NFC Championship game. His runs quickly became the stuff of legend, especially his game-winning scramble against the Vikings. He threw the ball like it was meant to be thrown, firing 40-yard bullets on a dead run. Simply put, the ball was in his hands, he was doing things that we had never seen before, and his team was winning football games. He was effective in ways we didn't know a quarterback could be.

We all saw that, and we saw more. That's the fatal flaw of players who exist to ignite our imaginations instead of lighting up the stat sheet: they have to attempt to become in real life what our imaginations has made them already. We saw a man capable of interspersing shining bits of brilliance with an utterly mediocre smattering of incomplete slants, and instead of accepting him for what he was and enjoying him in the here and now, imagined him as a quarterback who would someday do those seemingly simple "quarterback things"- making the right read, hitting his targets, moving the ball slowly down the field-and put on top of those skills his ability to electrify, improvise, and make runs and throws that no other quarterback could dream of. We got him in Madden, upped his accuracy in the mini-camps, and broke off 40-yard bombs and 25-yard runs on every play. (In Madden 2005, I had Vick until he retired, and he amassed over 100,000 passing yards and 20,000 rush yards for his career.) One year, The Sporting News' annual player ratings put him at #23 or something, putting in print what we all privately thought: "It's only a matter of time until he's #1 on this list."

And so we had a vision of what we knew Michael Vick to be, what we wanted him to be, what we needed him to be.

Act 3: The Unfortunate Nature of Reality

But the real Michael Vick was never quite able to become the Vick of Nike ads, of Madden, of our imaginations. His passes continued to fall to the earth, the right receiver never came along, and we felt the scorn of unfulfilled promise. First Vick's detractors spoke in whispers; "If your fantasy league values electricity, draft Vick. If it values passing statistics, don't." "If you want to see the next generation of quarterback, look at Donovan McNabb." "Vick does everything but throw right-handed. One scout who saw him throw righty said that his mechanics look more sound from that side. Something to think about."

As Vick's team continued to lose and he continued to complete 50% of his passes, the whispers of his detractors became a full-fledged roar. Michael Vick was, said Jason Whitlock, "The league's most underutilized wide receiver." During Marcus Vick's senior season, there were articles saying how he could one day be a better quarterback than his brother.(Ha!) Madden 2006 even put in a "vision cone" system to stop Vick from being the game's best player. The pundits like Woody Page, those who feed on destroying imagination, labeled Michael Vick as an apparition, a flashy fraud, the Pirates of the Carribean to Brady and Manning's Schindler's List. Michael Vick was for the uninitiated football fans, the ones who couldn't appreciate a good slant pattern, audible, blind-side block, or 6-yard run between the tackles.

The grand joke of Michael Vick is that if you combine rushing attempts with pass attempts and compare his "yards per play" to every other quarterback in the league, he becomes the one thing that nobody on the planet, whether they love him or hate him, thinks he is: average.

The impetus for this piece was, of course, Mr. Vick's legal troubles. But I have to admit that although I am a pre-law student, I could not be less interested in the legal ramifications of what Michael Vick did or did not do with those dogs. For me, as Altamont was the official end of the carefree '60s, the Michael Vick dogfighting trial is the official end of the Michael Vick who captured my imagination when I was watching the Sugar Bowl, for the simple reason that the heroes of our imagination don't get a kick out of torturing animals or own an operation called Bad Newz Kennels. He now exists as a deeply flawed character, both on the field and off, capable of quick but unsustainable flashes of brilliance.

That doesn't mean I've given up on Michael Vick. I still watch his games, waiting for him to do something incredible. I still get giddy on those rare weeks when he completes 70% of his passes and looks like an unprecedented weapon of offensive skill. Many have chosen to get their fill of incandescence from Reggie Bush, a man with the potential to be the first "Sandlot Runner" in the NFL since Barry Sanders. (Interestingly enough, Reggie has been paired with Matt Leinart and Drew Brees, two testaments to the subtlety of dominance.) That's all well and good, but I'm sticking with Vick, simply because the position he plays allows him to break that many more preconceptions about the way the game is supposed to go.

To love Michael Vick(as a player-what he allegedly did to those dogs is despicable, and I in no way defend or condone it), is to watch football with your heart and imagination instead of your mind. Many, namely Bill Simmons, believe that betting on games makes them more fun, and sees the ultimate measure of being a football fan is being able to predict what will happen; to watch Michael Vick is to embrace the unpredictable, and to hope that what will happen is something that you have never seen before, or would have thought possible, but was made to happen by a man with unfathomable talents. That's why I'm still a Michael Vick fan, and that's why I love sports. Thank you and good day.

1 comment:

MODI said...

krolik, great column and very well written.