Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Can Vick still play?

A few days ago, my 3-year-old son -- in an act of randomness understood only by other 3-year-olds -- unleashed the following non sequitur during a routine breakfast conversation:

"In jail, all you have is a bed and a potty."

Well, then. How do you possibly respond to that?

"Yes," I said, having no idea whether that's true. "That's true."

And maybe it is. I've never been. But it occurs to me that there probably isn't much else in prison. We can assume there are no helmets or shoulder pads, even if there might be free weights and a yard in which to run a few sprints.

So this really begs the question: Can Michael Vick still play?

Note the distinction here. Not "should he still play?" That question has been debated ad nauseam, and there's little chance either side will leave its trench at this point. Not "will he still play?" The answer to that has seemed obvious all along, even before commissioner Roger Goodell made his announcement Monday that the disgraced quarterback has been conditionally reinstated to the NFL. And certainly not "could he play before?" That's a popular topic these days for some reason (we'll get to that in a bit).

Yes, Vick will play somewhere in the NFL again. But can he?

After two years away, will he physically and mentally be able to meet the demands of the league? And how about the extra demands of his position? Will he be able to satisfy those while trying to shut out inevitable distractions?

And if he can, what does that say about the NFL?

Let's address those "extra" demands of a quarterback first, because Vick pretty much shredded that myth his first six years in the NFL. We hear arguments that QB is the most demanding position in all of sports. We hear tales of five-inch thick playbooks.

It's the king of all judgment positions, we're told, one that requires boundless smarts.

No, it doesn't. Killing dogs for sport does not illustrate good judgment, yet we know now that Vick was engaged in that activity while thriving as the most highly paid player at his position -- and the NFL as a whole. Ask Sean Glennon and Bryan Randall, both very bright men, how far intelligence gets you as a quarterback in the NFL.

In truth, success at QB requires the same characteristics as many positions in many sports. Instincts. Reflexes. Strength. Speed. An ability to make split-second decisions.

Whether Vick still has those traits like he once did is anybody's guess.

At 29 -- presumably the prime of a quarterback's life -- Vick certainly is still young enough. And succeeding on the field following an extended layoff is not unprecedented.

Roger Staubach, who had a four-year military commitment to fulfill after playing football at the Naval Academy, did. Ted Williams flew planes in two wars during his playing years. And most recently, Texas Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton returned from a three-year battle with substance abuse to make the all-star team in 2008.

But NFL folks will tell you that football today is different than football back then. That baseball can't compare. That the toughness and brilliance of the modern NFL athlete is unparalleled.

We're about to find out. Because if Vick can come close to his previous performance, maybe the game isn't as complicated as we thought. Perhaps simply acquiring -- or inheriting -- the physical tools for that game is the difficult part.

And make no mistake: Vick was an all-star performer before his legal troubles. You're going to hear a lot of people argue that he was all hype, and certainly a good percentage of him was hype (thank you very much, ESPN and Nike). But he also made the Pro Bowl three times.

To those who say Vick was merely a running back in a QB's body, a guy who couldn't complete a pass in a sandlot game, go tell that to Terry Bradshaw. And Don Meredith. And Ron Jaworski. And Vinny Testaverde. All had lower career passer ratings than Vick's 75.7.

Look around the NFL. See many backup quarterbacks who are better options than the man Vick once was? Cleo Lemon? Troy Smith? Kevin O'Connell? Kyle Boller?

Dan Orlovsky, the guy who ran out of the back of his own end zone for the Lions last year, is employed by the Texans. The guy doesn't even know the rules!

What short memories we have. No matter what the TV talking heads tell you now, Vick was not destined to become a one-dimensional, "Wildcat" orchestrator before the legal troubles struck. Here's what his former QB coach, Bill Musgrave, told The Roanoke Times about Vick in the 2006 preseason:

"He's simply phenomenal in the way that he can throw the ball and be accurate and judge distances and angles and have a feel for defenses, and of course his legs get him out of trouble and also make plays for him.

"Michael's combination of throwing process and running ability is unmatched."

That was less than a year before his suspension. Vick could throw a little then. He could run a lot then.

And if he can't now? Then he'll have 19 months of just bed, bathroom and beyond to thank for it.

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