Everyone is wondering if Michael Vick can cut it in Chip Kelly's new read-option-based offense. Will his line speed and ability to scramble outweigh Vick's questionable decision making and slowness getting rid of the ball?
I spoke with Charles Fischer, who has written about Kelly for years as head of the highly respected blog FishDuck, which obsessively analyzes Oregon Ducks strategy and plays. His thinks Vick will be incredible.
The reason is Darron Thomas. If that name doesn't ring a bell, it shouldn't for NFL fans. Following two amazing years at Oregon, Thomas went pro after his junior year. "He didn't get a sniff from NFL teams," Fischer notes. The peak of his pro career has been signing with the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League - for their practice squad.
Duck fans were mystified why Thomas thought going pro was a good idea - until they saw Marcus Mariota play last season. ESPN named the redshirt freshman as PAC-12 Player of the Year - ahead of a certain Mr. Barkley from USC - and he ranked 7th in the nation in passing efficiency as he led Oregon to the number 2 ranking in final polls and a Fiesta Bowl victory over Kansas State.
As we've seen, Chip Kelly holds open competitions for all roster slots, including quarterback. But what if you've led your team to the national championship game, thrown for 363 yards and 2 touchdowns against Nick Fairley's Auburn in a last-second loss, and set Oregon's all-time record for touchdowns (66)? Thomas did all that, but nothing guarantees you a job under Chip. May the best man win. In retrospect, it looks like Thomas saw the Mariota steamroller headed his way and went pro before he could be benched.
Fischer's point is that Kelly's coaching made Thomas a world-beating QB despite a lack of elite skills. "Even though he couldn't throw an NFL ball, Kelly used the play action to make him a star. As a pocket passer, Thomas would have been a third stringer."
With Vick, on the other hand, no one disputes his arm strength or running ability. Fischer is salivating.
Some people doubt that the read option can work at the pro level at all, given the elite speed and brutal hitting of NFL linebackers (ask Robert Griffin III). Many more doubt that Vick can handle that pounding, given his injury problems under Andy Reid.
Some of this concern misreads Kelly's offense. Chip never calls the sort of quarterback run plays that Johnny Manziel gets at Texas A&M, 18-20 times a game. The possibility of a QB run is just there to keep the defense honest, despite this common misconception about his strategy. In his 2009 NIKE coaching workshop, he hammered this point home. "We want the ball in the running back's hands. We do not want the quarterback carrying the ball. ... We want the quarterback giving the ball unless he cannot. ... This is a downhill play and the line is blocking for the running back, so give him the ball." Has he made himself clear yet?
Statistics back this up. Last year, Manziel ran 184 times for 1,349 yards. In Darron Thomas' final season, he ran just 56 times for 206 yards - and led Oregon to a Rose Bowl victory. Mariota (who runs a 4.5 40) ran 106 times for 752 yards last year. He protected himself carefully when he did, and still broke opponents' backs with big plays like a 32-yarder in the Fiesta Bowl and his 86-yard touchdown against Arizona State. Vicks' 4.33 at the combine may have slowed to Mariota's level over the years - you could ask LeSean McCoy - but it's easy to see why Charles Fischer is excited. Chip's offense is designed to spring quarterbacks for big runs without the danger Vick faced last year on sacks and desperate scrambles.
Chip Kelly has shown that his offense can work with a wide range of quarterbacks. He played 9 during his first 3 years at Oregon, and kept winning by adapting his offense to each. Darron Thomas took over only because starting QB Jeremiah Masoli was thrown off the team for off-field antics including drug possession and a burglary conviction.
So why couldn't Nick Foles or Matt Barkley succeed, given their high (if, arguably, not elite) skill levels? Couldn't they run a modified read option, throwing bubble screens and short passes instead of running when the read says to pull the ball? Chip Kelly wants the ball out of his quarterback's hands-or a decision to keep it and run -within 1.5 seconds of the snap, and Fischer thinks they won't have enough time. I think they could pull it off, but it would be too easy for defenses to anticipate those throws and jump on them for pick-6s.
So Michael Vick could be set to have a huge year. He just better not get too comfortable, because next year will bring another open competition at quarterback, and even leading the Eagles to the playoffs wouldn't protect his job against a younger player who's better with the read option's quick decisions. Such as Dennis Dixon.
For more from Mark, check out Taoish.org.