Welcome to Sports Writing’s Devolution: David Fleming and Michael Vick

by Cosmo Houck

Sick

Let me first say that I have nothing against Michael Vick. Not to repeat the rote party line, but the man paid his debt to society, as it were. If we’re going to justify the prison system as it exists we can’t be upset when someone comes out of prison and achieves success—in fact, as many others have pointed out, that’s the kind of success story we should celebrate. I also don’t think people are off base for pointing to the societal roots of the dogfighting he was involved in—although I’d be considerably more excited if the crack journalists at ESPN turned their attention to the injustice of the “War on Drugs” in this country. Let’s shove all that aside.

I’d also like to note that I love (and hate) watching Michael Vick play. I love it because there’s nobody else like him*. I hate him when he’s playing my team. He’s great fun to watch, and seeing as the Packers had an important role to play in him getting a shot last year, I had a front row seat to the sequel to the original Michael Vick experience. And guess what? A sequel that’s better! As I can attest to partly because he helped me win one of my fantasy leagues. With all those caveats, let me just say that David Fleming’s “Welcome to the QB Revolution” might be the most insipidly stupid thing I’ve read, in any genre, ever.

Sports writing does not have to meet a very high standard to be well received. Yet even by the standards of its genre Fleming’s article is impressively incoherent. I will prove, in this article, by wildly asserting it, that Mr. Fleming’s continual employ as a sports writer is dragging down an already exceptionally bad field of writing. The fact that he manages to take the low expectations accorded to a sports writer and ask himself: how can I possibly fail to meet even these? suggests that he might be just the superior untalented individual to transform sports coverage as we know it. His piece starts out fine, with the requisite chronicling of Vick’s exceptional talent and childhood misfortune. I would appreciate the light being shown on the plight of lower income families more if the sole purpose weren’t to establish some sort of stepping stone on the “heroes journey”. But that’s all fine; Michael Vick is a phenomenal talent, he lived in a bad neighborhood, and he really did take the NFL by storm both as a rookie and last year with the Eagles. I’m on board Mr. Fleming!

But don’t worry, it’s about to get crazy: “…he has not only turned the Eagles into a Super Bowl favorite but might also have accomplished something even more significant: devising a game plan to save the No Fun League from itself. Suddenly, it’s hard to imagine the NFL moving forward without Vick.” Wait, what? The NFL needs saving? It’s the most popular sport in the U.S. I didn’t see ratings drop off when Vick went to prison, or, for that matter, when his Eagles were knocked out of the post-season. He was one (very good) storyline in a season packed with them: Rex Ryan (always entertaining); the Patriots dominating with a ton of young players and castoffs; the Chargers’ remarkably good statistics paired with an 8-8 record; Peyton trying to hold his team together with everyone injured; the Pack winning the Super Bowl as a 6 seed; and many more. No Fun League indeed! But whatever, the man only wants to write an interesting article—what’s a little hyperbole between friends right?

Well, in this case a lot. Now we start to get to the good stuff. Apparently “He really could end up like Michael Jordan—as the first of something brand-new.” Hm. So, we’re going to compare a guy who was decidedly less than dominant as a quarterback for the vast majority of his career to the greatest basketball player of all time? Let’s do it! Hit me with it Fleming!

When he entered Leavenworth in 2008, Vick was perhaps too far ahead of the game. [I think Jim Mora would disagree] While he was inside, the game caught up. To counter ferocious pressure from zone blitzing and the cover 2**, quarterbacks who could escape and keep plays alive with their feet became a necessity. The spread offense and the Wildcat, featuring the modern, hybrid athletic style Vick embodied, became all the rage. In the past six seasons, Ben Roethlisberger has taken the Steelers to three Super bowls using Vick’s template.” (There’s more about Cam Newton, but I think you’ve suffered enough)

The ahistoricism in this paragraph boggles the mind. First, if the revolution Vick’s bringing that the league wasn’t ready for in 2008 was the spread, the Wildcat, and Ben Roethlisberger, the timing’s pretty strange. The spread has been infiltrating the NFL from the college ranks for much of the past decade. Here’s Gregg Easterbrook on the shotgun spread. (Written in 2007!) At other times, Easterbrook and others have argued that true innovation in football often filters up from high school to college to the NFL, mainly because NFL coaches are risk adverse and don’t want to bet their jobs on a fad. This would suggest there would be some delay between popular college offenses spreading and them emerging in the NFL—kinda like what happened with the spread.

And here’s some background on the wildcat: turns out the Dolphins (the only team to really use it consistently and effectively) used it primarily as a power offense, with a counter, a power, and one look where Ronnie Brown gave the ball to Ricky Williams. Yeah once or twice they did some stuff with Chad Pennington, but this is a power set, meant to get one more blocker on the field. So yes, Mr. Fleming, the Dolphins decided to take advantage of the incredible running skills of Chad Pennington, and lined up in the wildcat. And of course you want Michael Vick, who weighs 215 pounds, running between the tackles. Brilliant!

We can’t forget about how the Steelers have been riding Roethlisberger’s Vick-esque mobility to the Super Bowl ever since 2008. Oh, his first Super Bowl was in 2005 you say? Small mistake. He still has that transcendent running ability. Let’s just look at them side by side so we can evaluate how their body types and styles might be similar:

michael-vick-photo

The Flash.

big-ben-leads-steelers-past-broncos-2009-11-10_l

The Incredible Hulk. (Rejected alternatives include: Lotus vs. Hummer, Cheetah vs. Woolly Mammoth, Tom Cruise vs. Dwayne Johnson...ONE OF THEM'S A LOT BIGGER THAN THE OTHER)

What’s 5 inches and 50 pounds anyway?

Fleming quotes Dick LeBeau as saying “”There has been a change in the entire philosophy of football. You can hardly watch a high school game today without seeing empty backfields, spread-out receivers and teams throwing 70 percent of the time. The quarterbacks are more gifted and the game is wide open.” Now, Lebeau doesn’t mention Vick, something that’s notable because he could be talking about such dual threat quarterbacks as Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning or hell, throw Shaun Hill in there too. Nevertheless, Fleming posits this as evidence that “Inside Leavenworth, Vick watched as the style of play he popularized blossomed in his absence.” (again, Patriots in 07? Colts in 06? Anyone? Bueller?)

After asserting wildly and inaccurately that Michael Vick is a gift from the Almighty himself, destined not to revolutionize a single position but the entire No Fun League, Fleming abruptly changes course:”…[he] was the next link in a quarterback chain that runs from Fran Tarkenton to John Elway to Steve Young to Randall Cunningham.” Wait, what? This is what everybody knows: that Vick is a one of a kind scrambler who can throw the ball pretty well with a lot in common with past great scramblers: a tendency (especially early on) to rely upon it to the detriment of their passing skills. But none of those guys “revolutionized” the NFL. This is Fleming’s one sober sentence in quite awhile, so I felt the need to point it out.

Naturally, it’s short lived. I’m going to skip past lines like “preternatural poise” and his “supernatural” touchdown against the Redskins, as well as his meshing with Andy Reid (ew) offering “…a glimpse at the future of both the position and the sport”. I’ll also skip Fleming’s off handed suggestion that Vince Young and Tim Tebow only suck because of the unimaginative NFL, and not, you know, because they suck.

Here’s the thing that kills me most. After all the hype, the hints at an NFL with dual threat quarterbacks everywhere, Fleming has this to say: “There won’t be another Michael Vick, a hybrid quarterback so talented he can conquer the game and all its obstacles at once. If Vick isn’t the revolution unto himself, he’s at least clear proof of just how badly it needs to take place.” I have scientifically measured that this makes exactly no sense. If Michael Vick’s style of play is supposed to be the revolution, and yet it can’t be replicated because he’s one of a kind, there is no revolution. Which I guess means, given the 2nd sentence, that we should all be pretty bummed out.

He goes on to list Aaron Rodgers and Josh Freeman as evidence, but it’s become pretty clear that all he’s saying is quarterbacks are more athletic than they used to be and might run a bit more. Well, yeah. The trend at every position in the NFL is towards superior athletes. If he wanted to start with the accurate but uninteresting premise that Vick was a harbinger of that, sure. But he has nothing to do with causing this trend. Rodgers and Roethlisberger and Vince Young and others were already well on their way to becoming what they were in the NFL before Michael Vick ever started exploding on the ground and making it rain touchdowns with his 56% accuracy in Atlanta.

However, I think Fleming is right about one thing: Vick’s running ability is unique. Because of its uniqueness I think Vick is an outlier that represents the opposite of where mobile quarterbacking is heading. Fleming equates all mobility: Roethlisberger is like Rodgers is like Vick. This is stupid. Vick is not synonymous with mobility–there are different types. What do Cam Newton, Josh Freeman, and Roethlisberger have in common? They’re huge. I may have no evidence that this will be a long term trend in the type of athlete people look for in quarterbacks, but I have one thing going for me Fleming does not: more than one example.

At the end he asks, hopefully, “Ali? Jordan? Coming from an ex-con who was a backup this time last year?” To which I reply: You have officially written the worst thing I have ever read.

*Because we all love us some Michael Vick!:

**Because it took until 2008 for people to realize that you just had to have an athletic quarterback to beat the Tampa-2. BTW, the reason no one uses the Tampa-2 anymore (even teams like Chicago who run it use a lot more man than you think) isn’t because of athletic quarterbacks but because its staid and offenses have figured it out.