It's unthinkable the way things are unraveling for Michael Vick, so quick the plunge and so ugly the overtones. One week his coach's father is agreeing with the assertion that Vick is a "coach killer." And the next week Vick, just two years ago the most beloved person in Atlanta since Henry Aaron, is furiously giving the middle finger on each hand to the hometown fans who now boo him and his team as if they were common thieves.
Even in the fickle world of sports and entertainment we live in, where today's hero is next month's bum, Vick's free fall is something of a stunner. As recently as three weeks ago, the love affair raged. The Falcons had won back-to-back games over the contending Cincinnati Bengals and the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers to push Atlanta's record to 5-2. At the center of this liftoff was, of course, Vick. He completed 65 percent of his passes in those two games.
He threw long and short, he ran brilliantly but only when necessary. He seemed, for perhaps the first time, to have a complete grasp of when to throw and when to run — or when to do both.
Vick was using every player on the field. He hit the Steelers for four touchdown passes, a career high. And as if to prove it wasn't a fluke, he came back the very next week, in Cincinnati, threw three more touchdown passes and posted a near-perfect 142.7 passer rating.
Vick a great passer, too? Suddenly, the Falcons looked even better than they did when Vick did what no other quarterback had done in history: lead a visiting team to a playoff victory in Lambeau Field over the Packers. Those two victories were seen as Vick's coming of age.
Remember he is still just 26 years old. All over the NFL, the experts were saying Vick had turned the corner for good. He'd seen the light. He and his coaches, especially with Jim Mora, had gone through this long transition, but now Vick was ready to be great consistently. He was going to do this, if not every week, at least consistently, right? We saw it.
He was there.
Except, he wasn't. Those two victories were followed by losses to the dregs of the league, the Lions and Browns. Vick could only complete 40 percent of his passes during a home game in Atlanta against the pitiful Browns. Then, there was a lopsided loss to Baltimore. And the worst came two days ago, again in Atlanta, against the Saints.
Vick — with many of his teammates playing like mopes — tried to take over the game himself. I don't blame him. Receivers were dropping perfect passes, including one that should have been a touchdown. Boos were cascading from the stands. Vick put himself in harm's way play after play after play, and wound up rushing 12 times for 166 yards. The runs were fabulous — but ultimately fruitless.
And when the game was over and the Saints had won, 31-13, the fans in the Georgia Dome hooted and booed and shouted down Vick and the Falcons like this would be the last football game they would see in their lives.
The star quarterback, the franchise player and face of the only pro sports team that matters in Georgia, flashed the middle finger of his left hand, then the middle finger of his right hand. And it was quite natural, being a son of a Southerner, a black Georgian no less, to wonder how all of this will play out on different emotional levels in and around Atlanta, relations and history being what they've been over the decades. Without question, Vick cannot resort to the obscene, which he did Sunday. If he's fined by the NFL, good. If he has to apologize to try to repair relationships, so be it. He did apologize yesterday, saying: "My emotions got the best of me, and I apologize sincerely to all my fans and everybody who saw me make that gesture. I'm sorry and I apologize to all the young kids. . . . It was very inappropriate."
It's stunning to see his career playing out this way. Used to be a ticket to see Michael Vick was a guaranteed thrill. His team might not win, but three hours of Vick meant you were virtually certain to see something no other quarterback could do. And usually, there was something joyous about it, even if Vick was doing it to your team. And he may do that to the Redskins here Sunday when the Falcons visit FedEx Field. Vick might run for 51 yards down the sideline to take your breath away. He might go 19 of 27 for 291 yards and three touchdowns and make you think he's got the greatest arm since Joe Willie Namath.
And if he does, people will put both their hands over their faces in wonder and say, "This guy is the greatest thing I've ever seen."
But Vick might throw three picks. He might fumble away the game on the final possession trying to get into the end zone. He might miss receivers, if he sees them at all. He might play so erratically you put both hands over your face and say, "No wonder why Jim Mora's daddy thinks Vick is a coach killer."
Of course, this is the Michael Vick Dilemma. One week he can beat Brett Favre in Green Bay. The next he can lose at home to Cleveland.
And that leads to an even bigger problem. NFL coaches like routine and they like dependable. What Vick is, for certain, is a coach confuser. He confounds them. He can do things that no quarterback in NFL history has ever done, yet those plays don't mean his team will win the game.
Coaches want the quarterback to be 6 feet 4 and stand in the pocket. If he runs around while trying to throw, like Favre and John Elway, okay, then fine. But anything more than that has taken them outside the routine.
Coaches can't even figure out what Vick is doing, much less plan for it or scheme it out or control it.
The men who analyze quarterback play in the NFL often say quarterback is the most inadequately coached position in the league, probably because so many of the best ones work in TV now and not as coaches.
Nevertheless, Vick's biggest problem is coaches don't know what to do with him. Heck, he doesn't know what to do with himself. Vick said this preseason he wanted to go back to running because he's best at that. But Vick has said this season he's always wanted to be a passer. Is it possible he has too many skills for his own good?
With all due respect to the younger Jim Mora, who seems to be a pretty darn good coach, I'd like to have seen what Vick could have done playing for Bill Walsh. Suppose he could work every day with Steve Young or Elway or some coach who is unburdened by what a quarterback has been historically, somebody who could expand the definition of quarterback, based on what a guy with Vick's talents could be?
The possibility now, as we see a frustrated Vick trying to find his stride, is that he'll be somewhere in the middle. He's way past being a bust, a Ryan Leaf or Cade McNown or Akili Smith. But suppose he's never to have the impact of Peyton Manning or Tom Brady or even Donovan McNabb? Suppose, like most quarterbacks, he's great one week and bad the next? We'll go to see Michael Vick play because there's still the possibility of experiencing the thrill. But beyond the spectacular, it's still impossible to tell what we're getting.