Advice for the Eagles' Michael Vick from his onetime idol, Steve Young

Posted: September 03, 2012

Steve Young remembers when he got it.

The Hall of Fame quarterback said he believes that Michael Vick is getting it.

But is the Eagles quarterback willing to take the final step from get to got? And even if he does, will that be enough for Vick to deliver upon the lofty expectations from over a decade ago when he was the first overall pick in the NFL draft?

"It's time to be the big, grown-up quarterback," Young said recently by telephone. "Everybody wants Mike to be that kind of quarterback. The legacy he wants to leave - 'That I can be one of the greats.' - I think he can absolutely do that."

Young, Vick's favorite player growing up, said he had faith in the quarterback. He, too, once resisted change. And then he had his moment of clarity. It came, as change often does, with an assist.

Others had tried. Sid Gillman, one of the great innovators of the passing game, was Young's quarterbacks coach with the Los Angeles Express when he played his first two professional seasons in the USFL.

But it took Bill Walsh, in some ways the father of modern offense, after several years of effort, to convince Young that to win in the NFL you have to become a pocket passer. The quarterback can't play all the instruments. To succeed, he must be the conductor.

"Sid tried, but I was too young and too stubborn and I didn't listen," said Young, 50. "But Bill grabbed me this one time - I'll never forget it - and he said, 'Players need to know where you are when you're going to deliver the football. Championship football is orchestration.' "

There have been plenty of pocket passers who have failed. Vick has become more of a standstill quarterback. There is more to effectively playing the position than drop, set, and throw. Vick has spent more time studying defenses and trying to understand protections.

But last season and during the preseason Vick was still holding onto the football for too long in the pocket. He was still not taking all the necessary steps to avoid contact. He was still getting injured too often.

"That's finishing school," Young said. "He made the transition two years ago - the maturity transition - when he went to the Eagles and learned how to become a different quarterback than the one he was in Atlanta. And now he's finishing the job."

But what if he finishes the job and that's not enough? Vick is signed through 2015, but the Eagles can essentially sever ties with the quarterback in 2013 without taking much of a financial hit.

Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, when asked Thursday about the standard to which Vick will be held this season, did not set a bar as he seemingly did with coach Andy Reid. But he did say his team "will go as far as our quarterback play can take us, assuming the rest of our team plays well."

Read: Vick has to play better than he did last season, when he missed three games to injury, accounted for 18 turnovers, completed fewer than 60 percent of his passes, and was 7-6 as a starter.

"I've spent the whole preseason on the sideline," said Vick, who has already had minor thumb and rib injuries. "I'm not feeding into it no more. I'm playing lights-out football this year."

In the pocket

Young, for obvious reasons, said he sees a lot of himself in Vick. They're both athletically gifted, lefthanded quarterbacks who had to fight the perception they could not play the position at the highest level.

Reid, who was a senior offensive lineman at BYU when Young was a freshman, recalled the discussion he was part of when coach LaVell Edwards considered moving Young to cornerback. Vick encountered similar obstacles. Many thought he was better suited to play corner, wide receiver, or running back.

When Young jumped to the NFL to play for the Buccaneers he ran almost half as much as he threw. Even when he backed up Joe Montana in San Francisco the four seasons after he left Tampa Bay, Young continued to leave the pocket far too often.

During his first six seasons, Young, for every pass attempt, rushed 47.8 percent of the time. But under the tutelage of Walsh and Mike Holmgren and then Mike Shanahan, Young turned himself into one of the most efficient passers in the history of the game.

It's no coincidence that his completion percentage skyrocketed when he ran less. From 1991 to '99, when he finally became the 49ers' full-time starter, Young rushed only 22.7 percent of every throw.

"It took me a while, and I think Michael now understands this, believes this - that you can't win games in the NFL unless you deliver the ball in the pocket," Young said. "And that doesn't have to take anything away from what we do as athletic-type quarterbacks or what we do out of the pocket."

In Atlanta, for every pass attempt, Vick ran 30.6 percent of the time. In 2010, when Vick led the Eagles to the NFC East crown, that number dipped to 26.9 percent. Last season, he took off even less, running 17.9 percent of every throw.

"I think it can be done both ways," Vick said. "I think it just hasn't been done yet."

Reid endorsed Young's statement. The Eagles will still roll Vick out on occasion. But the majority of passing plays in their offense - or any West Coast offense, for that matter - come from within the pocket.

"You want to be a full-field thrower," Reid said. "So once you move the pocket in a direction, you become a half-field thrower. You're cutting the field in half. You're narrowing your opportunity."

On each play, there is a designed throwing spot for the linemen to protect and for the receivers to expect the throw to come from. Of course, the best laid plans can go awry. The protection can break down or the quarterback can either hold onto the ball too long or leave the pocket too early.

"Michael's gotten a lot better at that. He's comfortable that way," Reid said. "He's also got that extra bullet in the revolver where he can take off and go if he has to go."

Back in the holster

Reid and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg don't want a statuesque Vick. But they have said they want him to make better decisions when he runs. They want him to be a better game manager.

Mornhinweg, who was Young's offensive coordinator for two seasons in San Francisco, had Vick watching his game tape as far back as 2009. During training camp, Vick said that he was studying Young again and the way he managed the game and still kept defenders on their toes with his legs.

"In the middle of my career I came to understand that there is no glory in taking unnecessary risks," Young said. "It's understanding how to fall or how to avoid being in bad spots. It's finishing a play so that you're not out of breath for the next play."

For years, Vick has battled his inner running back. He began playing peewee football as a tailback who could run past, through, and around everyone. He has said he still plays with the competitive fire of someone who literally could not be stopped.

Vick harked back to the December 2010 game against the Vikings when he bruised his thigh on the first play of the game but stayed in and had his worst game of the season. The Eagles lost, coughed up a first-round bye in the playoffs, and a season that seemed so full of promise lost much of its momentum.

"Sometimes I've got to control it. It gets me in trouble," Vick said. "My coach will tell you I'm so competitive and I want to win it so much that I go that extra mile. But sometimes I put myself in bad situations doing it. I love it, but I got to learn how to put it back in the holster."

Vick is still quick. But the injuries have piled up over the last two years. He missed three games in 2010 with fractured rib cartilage. He missed another three the following season with broken ribs. And there have been various other minor dings.

"History would tell you that he's been banged up," Reid said. "But again, that could change this year. That could change next year. You never know. Does he need to be on the field every game to be the franchise [quarterback]? I don't think so. There have been some pretty good quarterbacks that have come through and they've been hurt."

Last season, the four quarterbacks who played in the conference championships played all 16 regular-season games. Since 1994, only two Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks missed more than one regular-season start because of injury.

Young played in all 16 the year he won his Super Bowl in 1994. He was 33. His advancing age, he said, helped keep him healthy.

"It's a challenge for us quarterbacks that can move," Young said. "In some cases it becomes where your body as you get older tells you that you have to do it."

Vick turned 32 in June. He keeps saying this is the year he puts it all together, although he has said that before.

"It's all there in front of him," Young said, "especially if he wants to perfect this."


Contact Jeff McLane at 215-854-4745, jmclane@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @Jeff_McLane.

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