PHILADELPHIA -- By his own admission, Michael Vick seldom was inclined to learn the nuances of playing the quarterback position during his first six seasons in the NFL with the Atlanta Falcons. He had those incredible wheels and that incredible gun of a left arm, and, hell, what more did he need?
It was enough to get him two Pro Bowl invitations. It was enough to get him that first crazy $100 million contract from the Falcons. Why waste time sitting in a dark room watching tape and learning how to read coverages and recognize blitzes?
But after spending nearly two years in prison and almost flushing his career down the toilet, Vick has realized the error of his ways, both on and off the field.
He wants to be a real quarterback now. He wants to have the football acumen that Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have. He wants to see what they see when they look across the line prior to a snap.
"Over the last month was the first time I really tried to learn defenses more and more as far as where they can come after you, where they can get you, who's the free guy coming, what protections pick up what blitzes," he said on his weekly radio show on 94WIP Monday night. The way Marty (Mornhinweg) put it, it's the next level and it's the last phase for me in my quest for greatness."
The problem is, that next step is a big one. A quarterback doesn't just suddenly decide one day that he wants to be an arm-waving maestro like Manning, and voila. His view of what's happening on the other side of the line becomes Claritin clear.
That's especially true in today's NFL, where getting pressure on the quarterback is the name of the game and defensive coordinators are dialing up every blitz imaginable to accomplish that.
"It's gotten so complicated with fire-zone blitzes," said NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock. "In the last three years, I've seen more free runners (unblocked rushers) than I've seen the rest of my career. And they're only doing it rushing five people for the most part.
"They're showing seven or eight (rushers), but rushing five. The question is, which five? You're seeing defenses show A-gap pressure that disappears, and then here comes a corner off the edge. Defenses are bringing five and then playing three-deep or three-under behind it. They're playing a zone behind it. It's kind of the best of both worlds. You're getting pressure on the quarterback and not selling out with man coverage behind you."
Quarterbacks are going down at a record rate. They were sacked 89 times in Week 1, which is far and away the most in at least the last six years. There were 74 sacks in Week 1 last year. Vick was hit 21 times (12 passing, nine running) against the Rams, far higher than the league average of about eight times in Week 1.
"Defenses are willing to give up a zone to bring that extra guy," Eagles coach Andy Reid said. "And then the quarterback has to sort it out. You've got to have the right route called. There's a hole. You just have to find it.
"You put on a tape of any game and quarterbacks are getting tattooed. These are exotic fire zones, man. They're making the quarterback kind of sort it all out and try to find (the hole)."
Vick is getting better at understanding what he's looking at, but it's not something you pick up overnight, or even in a year or 2. Reid and Mornhinweg have increased (Vick's) responsibilities in calling protections, particularly with a rookie center, Jason Kelce, in front of him. But he's not in Manning's or Brady's class. They're PhDs. He's maybe a college freshman.
But Vick can do something they can't. Something that somewhat offsets any difficulty he might have in diagnosing blitzes or finding the weakness in a protection scheme.
He can run.
"It helps," Reid said. "In particular, if you want to get the ball down field. You definitely can make the argument that it doesn't hurt to have somebody who can move around a little bit."
Because of his unique escapability, Vick can make an unblocked rusher miss. You saw that last year against Detroit when he repeatedly spun away from Lions defensive backs coming off the edge at him.
You saw that Sunday when he somehow slipped away from Rams linebacker Ben Leber and cornerback Bradley Fletcher on what looked like a certain sack and ran for a 17-yard gain.
But he needs to be able to figure out where the weakness in the protection is and where the free runner probably will be coming from, so that he doesn't get lambasted like he did on safety Quintin Mikell's blindside blitz in the second quarter.
Because of the protection difficulties that fire-zone blitzes are causing around the league, mobility has become a valuable commodity in quarterbacks. It's why the Broncos drafted Tim Tebow in the first round in 2010. It's why the Panthers were willing to roll the dice with the first pick in the draft last April and take Cam Newton. Hell, it's why the Eagles signed Vince Young in late July.
"You really need an athletic quarterback today," Mayock said.
Mayock said offensive coordinators and offensive line coaches are simplifying their pass-protection schemes to deal with the fire zones.
"What they're trying to do basically is cover the gaps and make sure the quarterback knows where the weakness in the protection is," he said. "So if the quarterback knows that he's going to get a free runner from his front side or through the A-gap or wherever, you try to protect from the inside out.
"If the quarterback knows there's a problem, he can either sight-adjust or throw it away. But it's gotten so complicated (defensively) that offensive line coaches are saying, 'You know what, let's just go back to the basics. Let's get the gaps covered and let the quarterback be responsible for the outside runner.' With an athletic quarterback, if he understands where the weakness is in pass protection, then he's got a chance."
Reid said Vick is doing better with that.
"You saw him throw a couple of times to 'hot' guys Sunday," he said.
When a "couple of times" becomes "regularly," Vick's quest for greatness might be within reach, and Eagles fans won't need to worry as much about the quarterback's ability to survive the season.