Back in 1996, when Steve Lappas was in charge of the Villanova basketball program, he had the good fortune of landing a highly regarded recruit named Tim Thomas, from Paterson Catholic High School. Thomas, you may recall, was a six-foot-nine bundle of potential whose collegiate career lasted all of one season. He then spent 13 years in the NBA, playing for seven teams and tantalizing a succession of coaches with the same charisma and potential that had made him such a coveted prep player.
Shortly before practice began in November ’96, Villanova held a media day that gave reporters a chance to speak with players and coaches. I asked Thomas why he chose Villanova, especially since his good pal, Vince Carter, was playing at North Carolina, one of Thomas’s finalists.
Thomas told me that Carter had let him know that UNC coach Dean Smith had tried to “change” his game by insisting that he learn to shoot from the outside. Thomas was incredulous that a coach would try to alter a top player’s style and felt that he wouldn’t have to endure such unreasonable treatment at Villanova. It made perfect sense, because what the hell did Dean Smith know, anyway?
It’s not surprising Thomas was offended by the fact that a Hall of Fame coach might, well, coach his players. By 1996, players were already cultivating an attitude, even at the college level: Anyone who dared suggest they were not perfect was a “hater” and therefore not to be trusted.
The Thomas episode parallels what happened this week with Eagles quarterback Michael Vick. Vick became testy as reporters continued to probe him about his style of play and whether Vick expected to play differently this year than he has in the past. The questions were designed to divine whether Vick would be able to play the entire season, or if he would suffer more injuries, as he has the past two years, when he missed a total of seven games. Below the surface was a more direct concern:
Would Vick ever learn to play the position well enough to help the Eagles win a Super Bowl?
Vick, who is clearly a player who expects fans, media and the teams for which he plays to allow him to do his thing with little interference, bristled at the line of questioning. According to the Inquirer, when a reporter asked him if he was becoming irritated by the continued questions about his holding onto the ball too long and therefore becoming more susceptible to getting hit, Vick expressed frustration.
“Yeah, because at some point, I start to feel like it’s personal, like shots are being directed towards me for holding the ball too long … when that’s not the case,” he said.
Vick’s response and his cranky attitude (he did brighten toward the end of the exchange) demonstrate that he is beginning to feel the pressure that sits on his shoulders this season. By making very few changes in the roster during the off-season, the Eagles have told fans they are happy with their team and expect a big 2012 season. Of course, without a full, productive performance from Vick, that’s impossible.
Trouble is, even if Vick is around for all 16 games, something that has happened only once in his nine-year career, there is still no guarantee the Eagles will make a deep playoff run—or even reach the playoffs. Vick’s need for change isn’t simply to preserve his health; he must alter his style in order to become a complete NFL quarterback. No matter how dynamic Vick is with the ball in his hands, he remains too inconsistent. If Vick continues to perform the way he has throughout his career—refusing to make proper plays against the blitz and stubbornly ignoring the mandates of the offensive scheme in order to “make plays”—the Eagles will thrill at times, but they won’t win big. No team on which Vick has played has done that, and Vick has been a big reason for that inability to succeed at the highest level.
Every question posed to Vick about whether he will become more disciplined as a quarterback is valid, because he must change his ways considerably to win. Vick’s 60.9 percent completion rate during his three seasons in Philadelphia is an improvement over what he accomplished in Atlanta (53.8 percent), but that is in the bottom half of NFL starting QBs. Top passers are closer to 65 percent than 60 percent, and that’s a huge difference. They also have TD/interception ratios well above the 9:7 number Vick managed last year. In other words, top quarterbacks are interested in accuracy and taking care of the ball, two things that are not Vick strong points.
Vick’s answer to whether he’s going to play differently in 2012 couldn’t have cheered those hoping he understands the need for significant improvement.
“I really don’t think I need to discuss what type of game I’m going to play,” he said. “It’s going to be what it’s going to be. It seems like the questions are becoming repetitive, and I’m tired of answering it, because the only thing we can do is wait and see if I’m going to play a more disciplined game. There’s not much more to say or talk about.”
Wait and see? It seems as if Vick hasn’t made up his mind himself. Either that, or he does know, and he plans on springing a surprise on fans in the opener against Cleveland. Vick must understand that his previous nine seasons of play haven’t been championship caliber. In order to lead the Eagles to the playoffs and beyond, he must become someone who protects the football and strives to be extremely accurate. He must learn that the way to beat the blitz is to find the open receiver—often evident before the ball is snapped—and not rely on innate athletic ability to elude pass rushers and throw downfield. Until he does that, the questions will persist.
And the Eagles won’t be winning a Super Bowl.
- Phillies fans expecting a miraculous boost in offense when (if?) Chase Utley returns to the lineup had better remember two things. First, Utley won’t be back for about three weeks, if that soon. Secondly, his bad knees will not allow him to be a power hitter. Expect Utley to hit about .270 and not to drive the ball, due to his weak lower half.
- How about that Joe Blanton? Last Tuesday, the Phillies learn that Roy Halladay will be on the DL for six to eight weeks, and Blanton was horrible against the Mets. Sunday, in a key game against the Fish, he gave up a two-run homer to the pitcher and melts in the sixth. Show a little fortitude, would you?
- Roger Ebert, not Magic Johnson, should provide analysis of the Miami-Boston playoff series—which offers the same rooting possibility for Philadelphia fans as would a matchup between Taliban Tech and the Al Qaeda All-Stars. Both teams are filled with inveterate floppers who collapse as if shot when a small nudge is administered. Job one for David Stern in the off-season is to end the drama and restore some sense of dignity to the sport. Either that, or fill the court with water, so that the players won’t get hurt when they dive.