Michael Vick came into the NFL in 2001. He will turn 31 in a few weeks. Vick is the age when most players start to decline. Amazingly, he's coming off the best season of his pro career. There just isn't much normal about Vick. That likely is true of his future since it is true of his past. This is a good time to talk about exactly what his future is.
Let's start with the obvious part - talent. Vick has lost half a step in his running, but that is about it. His arm is as strong as ever. He's in excellent shape. He's still the fastest quarterback in the league and a dynamic scrambler. At one point he was one of the fastest overall players in the league, but he's come down from that level.
Vick might be turning 31, but he sure doesn't look like it or play like it. Part of that is due to his time in incarceration. Vick missed two seasons while in prison. That kept him from taking the physical beating that quarterbacks typically suffer through. He wasn't exactly at Club Med (or even Club Fed for that matter - Leavenworth is the real deal), but that time away from the game did give his body a much needed break. Vick, like all scrambling quarterbacks, takes a lot of hits.
He doesn't have the body of a typical 31-year old quarterback. He's only got five full seasons of NFL action under his belt. In 2001 he was a rookie and played sparingly. In 2003 he got hurt after five games and missed the rest of the season. He missed 2007 and 2008 due to being in prison. He was a backup in 2009.
Let's compare him to Donovan McNabb for a minute. McNabb turned 31 in the middle of the 2007 season. I just used his numbers through the end of 2006 for comparison's sake. From his rookie year through the end of 2006 McNabb had 3,961 touches (attempted passes, runs, and sacks combined). Vick to this point in his career has 2,043 touches, just more than half of McNabb's total. That's pretty amazing when you think about it.
The difference in touches also makes sense in why McNabb was so clearly showing his age. He wore down as he got into his 30s. McNabb was still mobile, but gone was the dynamic scrambler of the early years. McNabb doesn't like to run much anymore, but he's also just not as good at it. Since the end of 2006 he's only got a total of six runs that went for 20 or more yards. Vick had eight such runs last year.
I think we've established that Vick isn't typical of his age and that he's still pretty gifted physically. How long can this last? I think he's got at least a couple of more years at his current level. He'll slow down at some point after that, but can still remain one of the top five or so mobile quarterbacks in the league. I don't see his arm strength changing much without a significant injury.
Vick does have to more judicious in the future. I know he's a runner and that means he will take some chances (as well as some hits). I don't want him to turn into Drew Bledsoe. Vick needs to choose his spots more carefully. There are times to be aggressive and go for the first down or to try and get into the end zone. There are also times to slide or get out of bounds. Vick was the Falcons offense early on in his career. That's isn't the case with the Eagles. He's got all sorts of weapons. To put this in basketball terms, we don't need Vick to be Allen Iverson. We need him to be Steve Nash or Rajon Rondo. Distribute the ball to your weapons. Make the players around you better. Don't try to do it all by yourself.
Vick can extend his career by making some wiser choices. Avoiding hits will keep his body going longer, something we all want. The challenge for Vick is to get rid of the young player's mentality that he's had in the past and to think like a veteran. Getting a first down in late September isn't as important as staying healthy for a Super Bowl run. There are times to sell out and go for it. If the Eagles are on a losing streak, be aggressive. Divisional games in November and December can be critical and certainly are a time to take some chances. Tuesday night games against the Vikings late in the season - oh wait, that would never happen. What the heck am I talking about? Vick can stay aggressive, but must become more picky about when to do it.
The porous offensive line didn't help matters last year. Vick had to run more than the coaches would have wanted. He didn't have adequate protection on a regular basis. The addition of Howard Mudd, drafting of Danny Watkins, and return of Jamaal Jackson should help the situation quite a bit. Better offensive line play will reduce the hits and sacks that Vick has to take. If they can give him a clean pocket more regularly, Vick won't have to scramble as much and can focus more on his passing.
Vick must also prove to be a smarter quarterback to help himself. He must improve his pre-snap reads. If he can see that a blitzer is coming off the edge, Vick will know to get rid of the ball quickly or at least to adjust the way he reads the play. Vick needs to get the ball out quicker even when the blitz isn't coming. He's got to read plays and be decisive about where to go with the ball. This will cut down on the hits he takes in the pocket. Getting hit in the pocket can be just as devastating as running around in space. Trent Green and Tom Brady both missed seasons after getting hit by blitzers in the pocket and suffering knee injuries.
Trying to predict how long Vick can play at a high level is pretty tricky. My guess is that the Eagles see him as the starter for the next three years. Beyond that, you can only guess. The Eagles have Mike Kafka developing as the backup of the future and the possible starter of the distant future. Maybe he's A.J. Feeley. Maybe Matt Hasselbeck (Reid coached him for a year in Green Bay). Or maybe he's Andy Hall. Only time will tell.
I look at Vick as the short term answer at quarterback. I don't mean that to limit him to just a couple of years. Rather, that is what we should be able to count on. I think Vick has the potential to play five more years if he's able to adjust his game and stay hungry. Some veteran quarterbacks start the downward spiral at this point. They know their best days are behind them. They've got tens of millions of dollars in the bank. The quarterbacks either grow complacent or they just sense that the end is in sight and that changes them. Vick is coming off the best season of his career. He's fired up by playing on a new team and in a vastly different system than the one he came into the league in. Vick has a completely different situation and mentality than almost every veteran quarterback you can think of. That should serve him well in the coming years, if he can stay focused and hungry.
There will need to be a veteran backup brought in for 2011. Kevin Kolb will be dealt and Kafka isn't ready yet to be the primary backup on a Super Bowl contender. Beyond 2011 the Eagles will have a good combination with Vick and Kafka, hopefully for several years. By the time Vick is starting to show some age, Kafka might be ready to get his shot at starting. The Eagles will carefully monitor his progress and decide if he looks like the quarterback of the future. Reid will act aggressively, if needed. I don't see anything happening to the Eagles the way it has to the Vikings or Cardinals. Those teams found themselves in a somewhat desperate quarterback situation.
For now we just get to sit back and watch Vick. 2010 was his best year, but he can still get better. The shortened offseason will hurt him, but any training camp and preseason action at all will help him. 2011 is the first season that Vick goes into as the starting quarterback since 2006. Let's put that in perspective. In 2006 the Panama Canal was still under construction. Gas was only a nickel a gallon. And Millard Fillmore was president. Okay, it wasn't that far back, but it was pretty long ago in terms of football. Neither Manning brother had won a Super Bowl at that point. Drew Brees was headed to New Orleans, but there were serious questions about his shoulder. The notion of the Eagles without McNabb, Brian Westbrook, or Brian Dawkins just seemed silly.
Vick will give us some hints about the future with how he plays in 2011. If he is more judicious than reckless and is able to play a more cerebral game, Vick might be the Eagles quarterback for the next five years. There is no question of talent. We just need his body to hold up.