Mornhinweg would rather be Eagles' No. 2 than a bad team's No. 1

Coaching talents such as Michael Vick and DeSean Jackson make the post of Eagles offensive coordinator more appealing to Marty Mornhinweg (left) than head coach of a noncontending team.
Coaching talents such as Michael Vick and DeSean Jackson make the post of Eagles offensive coordinator more appealing to Marty Mornhinweg (left) than head coach of a noncontending team. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff photographer)
Posted: July 06, 2011

THE EAGLES had won, and the offense had clicked nicely in a romp over the visiting Giants.

So Marty Mornhinweg was surprised when Michael Vick approached him after the game and announced, "I'll see you Tuesday at 11."

The Eagles were off that Tuesday, and Mornhinweg wanted his quarterback, in his first full season behind center in 4 years, to rest as much as possible, especially as the team prepared for Game 11.

Mornhinweg told Vick, "No. Whatever it is, it can wait until Wednesday."

"No," Vick replied. "Tuesday. At 11."

Tuesday at 11 they met on the Eagles' indoor practice field. Mornhinweg drilled Vick on footwork issues that cost Vick the chance to connect on a couple of big plays. During the 2 years of Vick's reintegration to the NFL and his re-education as a quarterback, it always has been footwork with him.

They worked for 45 minutes, just the two of them. Then Mornhinweg sent Vick home:

"Otherwise, he'd have worked an hour, hour-and-a-half."

And Mornhinweg would have been right there beside him.

Mornhinweg arrived in Philadelphia in 2003 with a gilded pedigree as an assistant coach: Brett Favre's coach in 1996, when the Packers won the Super Bowl and Favre won his second MVP award; Steve Young's coach in 1997 and '98, Young's last Pro Bowl seasons; Jeff Garcia's first NFL coordinator, who guided Garcia to the Pro Bowl in 2000, Garcia's first full season as a starter.

Since arriving, Mornhinweg has only burnished his record. He was Donovan McNabb's offensive coordinator from 2004 to '09, when McNabb logged his five best passing seasons.

"It's no coincidence that when he and Andy were on the staff together, we were one of the most productive offenses in history," McNabb says.

Mornhinweg took over playcalling from head coach Andy Reid full time in 2006. Mornhinweg helped Kevin Kolb shed the stigma of being a product of the University of Houston's spread offense; now, Kolb is a West Coast surgeon and a coveted starter-in-waiting.

Kolb currently is waiting behind Vick, who, thanks to a suddenly refined set of skills, stole Kolb's job last season. Vick starred as Atlanta's messiah for five seasons before a dogfighting conviction cost him 2 years of his career. As a No. 1 quarterback, Vick never had a passer rating above 82 before last season, when, under Mornhinweg, it jumped to 100.2, fourth in the league.

Mornhinweg saw it coming.

"Absolutely. Here was a man who hasn't played for a couple of years. However, if he did it the right way, I thought he could be a Steve Young-type player," Mornhinweg says.

He considers, then continues: "Mike's got a long way to go, but, you know what? I think he can be better than Steve."

Young, lefthanded and mobile like Vick, is in the Hall of Fame.

Favre will be, too, when his time comes. McNabb and Garcia were considered possible Hall of Famers at times during their careers.

Usually, the man given access to such remarkable talent is not taking orders, he's giving them.

Which begs the question: Why is Mornhinweg still in Philadelphia at all?

The record never matched the image.

At his first training camp as the Detroit Lions' head coach in 2001, disgusted at the effort of his new team, he threw down his sunglasses, ended practice and stormed off on his Harley, an exhibition that both stunned and entertained his team.

On the field, Mornhinweg was no less bombastic. He once took the wind, not the ball, in overtime against the Bears, who drove for a field goal and the win.

He wasn't lucky, either: Entering his second season, he drafted quarterback Joey Harrington to develop, but, after Harrington started strong, he regressed and ultimately was sidelined with an irregular heartbeat.

Mornhinweg's fire, contrived or sincere, was never contagious. His teams won five games in two seasons: 2-14, then 3-13. They went 0-16 on the road. He was fired a month after the 2002 season - after everyone with weight in the organization swore he would return.

Beginning with Mornhinweg's stay, team president Matt Millen mismanaged the club into the worst in the league until his departure early in the 2008 season.

Still, Mornhinweg is stained by that failed first chance.

"There were some great experiences there," Mornhinweg says of his time in Detroit - great, as in learning to manage disaster. "When things are struggling a little bit, you learn a lot about how to go about your business. I learned how to handle things when they aren't going real well. I learned a lot about the intricacies of being a head coach."

Head-coaching possibilities have since come Mornhinweg's way, mainly as nibbles, both in the pros and college. Reid tirelessly, shamelessly, stumps for Mornhinweg's candidacy. But Mornhinweg is a little wary.

"There's been some NFL teams that have called Andy and so forth, but there's only 32 of them. So the timing has to be perfect," Mornhinweg says. "It has to be the right situation."

Going to Cleveland this offseason was not the right situation. A young quarterback, a moribund offense and a restructured front office - even one fronted by former coach and boss Mike Holmgren - did not appeal as much as staying in Philadelphia, with Vick and DeSean Jackson and a shot at winning now.

"It wasn't the right thing," Mornhinweg says.

Going back to San Francisco might have been the perfect thing, but Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh took that job. League sources indicate that Mornhinweg was No. 2 on the 49ers' list.

Prying him out of Philadelphia will take more than a few million dollars and a big office.

"My wife and kids have latched on to Philadelphia. I've had kids go through high school here," says Mornhinweg.

His son, Skyler, is a senior at St. Joseph's Prep and one of the top quarterback recruits in the nation. His older daughter has graduated, but his younger daughter will be a junior.

"When kids get into high school, that's an important time for them," he says. "I told all of them, 'Once you get into your sophomore year in high school, I'll do everything I can to stay and get you through.' "

Then again, if the Eagles stunk, Mornhinweg might be less wedded to his big townhouse in South Philadelphia.

"Every year, we have a chance. We have an opportunity to win the whole thing here," he says.

And that's better than running his own team?

"I'm beyond that," Mornhinweg says.

Then again, if he wins another ring as a top assistant, this time with the NFL's most fascinating player under his wing, he won't have to settle for a Detroit-type job.

"One of the best ways to go about your business [read: advance]," he says, with a devilish smile, "is to win championships."

No person will influence that end more than Vick, and, despite the presence of quarterbacks coach Doug Pederson, no person will influence Vick more than Mornhinweg.

Pederson will run Vick's 30 minutes' worth of extra drills before and after practices. Mornhinweg, a 5-10 scrapper who somehow played at Montana, will supervise.

More than anyone else, it will fall to Mornhinweg and Vick to improve the Eagles' mediocre performance scoring touchdowns in the red zone.

"Scoring touchdowns in the red zone doesn't correlate as highly to winning as how many times you get into the red zone," Mornhinweg says - but then, scoring in the red zone does correlate to scoring more points. "We want to be the very best in the red zone. The windows are tight, the lanes are tight. You have to be right on down there."

That could be impossible, since the lockout disserved the Eagles more than any other playoff contender.

Wholesale changes on the defensive coaching staff makes that side of the ball a complete enigma when the league resumes. And, offensively, things must improve. For Game 15 last season, the Vikings prepared a blitz-intensive template, bringing speed from the edges to corral Vick. The scheme worked to great effect over the last few games.

It will fall to Mornhinweg and Vick to limit the sacks and the hits. In front of a patchwork offensive line, Vick, the nimblest quarterback in league history, often didn't recognize where pressure would come from. When he did, he often didn't throw the ball away enough.

Vick was sacked 34 times, more than any quarterback with as few as 372 passing attempts.

It didn't help that Vick finally was running a real NFL offense.

"The one thing I was concerned about with Mike was the big picture, because he had not done that in that type of a system in his whole career," Mornhinweg says. "I take that personally. I'm the one who has to prepare him."

And convince him.

"Most sacks were quarterback-related. The quarterback could get the thing out," Mornhinweg says. Vick often can escape, but that is not always the best course:

"Here is the situation Mike is in. He's got uncommon athleticism, so he can get away, on occasion, back-dooring it. There's that fine line when you need to throw it away or get it out to a hot receiver or use that athleticism to make that great play."

Vick can watch film and practice against scout teams all he wants, but correctly recognizing blitzes and effectively dealing with pressure cannot be re-created. He has to play.

But consider this: Give Vick, searching for a long-term contract, an entire offseason to work with young receivers Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper, as well as sure-handed veterans Jason Avant and Brent Celek as well as running back LeSean McCoy.

Mornhinweg has considered it. He knows what could have been - but he also knows what could be. The Eagles led the league in big plays last season.

"What offenses will be missing early is timing. Our players, with their explosiveness and big-play capabilities - and maybe I'm wishing and hoping here - might get us over the hump just a little bit better than other teams," he says.

If the timing ever does click, if Vick isn't hit too much, if the red zone becomes a welcoming place - how high is the ceiling?

"A high ceiling?" Mornhinweg says, smiling. "We talk about no ceiling."

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