It is a phrase often overused in football, but in this case it’s appropriate: Randall Cunningham "has freakin’ eyes in the back of his head." How else to explain what he did to Bruce Smith and the Buffalo Bills on a cold and bright sunny day in December twenty-two years ago? The 80,000 Buffalo fans at Rich Stadium were deafening. The Eagles faced a third-and-fourteen from their own five yard line, and Smith smelled blood. As Cunningham took the ball from center, Smith sprinted from his end position, Cunningham’s blind side, and was forced eight yards deep in the endzone. But from there he had a clear shot at an unsuspecting Cunningham, who was forced by surrounding pressure to sit in the pocket. Smith quickly circled around, and like a heat-seeking missile targeted Cunningham’s lower back… he had him, a sure safety. Then he didn’t! Cunningham’s six-feet-four-inch frame suddenly became three-feet-two as he leaned forward and ducked down with surprising quickness. Smith’s left arm grazed Cunningham’s flattened back as Smith’s momentum carried him past the quarterback. Just as quickly did Cunningham recompose, set his feet below his tall, gangly frame and sprint left. He found enough space to recoil his right arm and launch a 60-yard bomb against the wind to an ill-covered Fred Barnett who caught the ball and raced forty-five yards for the touchdown. Cunningham could not have seen the rush from Smith behind him, could not have heard any warning. It was an amazing play, and seldom has a Hall-of-Famer such as Smith been victimized so thoroughly.
It’s probably understated that Chip Kelly has a challenge ahead of him. Yes he’s the brand new head coach of a billion dollar franchise with as demanding and passionate a fan base as exists on Earth (his new car smell still lingers). Yet he also inherited this Michael Vick guy, his new starter, a player who, by Kelly’s own definition, does not seem to fit his offense. But Kelly and Howie Roseman did the right thing back in February. They needed to restructure Vick’s contract to keep him in town for just a bit longer. It would have been incredibly foolish of Kelly and Roseman to release Vick so quickly without even catching a glimpse of what he can do in a Kelly-style offense. But as maddening as Vick’s play can be, there is no denying the talent. For Kelly, there exists opportunity to harness that talent, to focus it, to teach him and to succeed where others before him have failed. Because others before him have indeed failed.
It has not been easy for Vick learn the NFL game. After he was drafted by Atlanta, head coach Dan Reeves recognized that Vick struggled to call plays in the huddle. According to Reeves, "It was kind of like getting an A in Spanish, and then you go to Spain and realize you don’t know anything." But like Buddy Ryan did with Cunningham, the tendency was to let Vick play his game, to let his athleticism and electricity take over. A tendency that carried through to Jim Mora’s years as head coach. Then, after Vick’s incarceration, he came to Philadelphia, where Andy Reid was determined to teach Vick how to play within the system. Is it a coincidence then, given Vick’s NFL history, that his level of play decreased as his exposure to the system increased? Vick’s first year as a starter in Philadelphia was more representative of Vick’s raw athletic, un-caged talent, while subsequent seasons revealed Vick’s flaws as a quarterback who is required to work within a structured offense.
Historian Carter G. Wilson wrote in 1933 that, "old men talk of what they have done, young men of what they are doing, and fools of what they expect to do." This quote applies quite appropriately to Vick. Too often does Vick talk of what he is expected to do and not often enough does he actually do it. Case in point, those ribs of his. At this stage of his career, they must be sewn, stitched, and duct-taped to his chest plate When he rolls out of bed, they crack and crimp as he pushes this one back over here, that one back over there. It’s admirable that his tolerance for pain must rival that of Wolverine’s, but his ribs are a product of his fearless style of play. Well, fearless for some; stupid for others. Too many times has Vick been told to slide. He’s been told by teammates, by coaches, by the President of the United States. Vick has been told many things.
In many ways, Michael Vick is Randall Cunningham. When Marion Campbell was coach of the Eagles, he hired a consultant, Sid Gillman, to work with Cunningham on learning the game. According to Merrill Reese, "Sid once gave Randall a film with a piece of paper in the film about a quarter of the way through it. The next day Randall brought the film back. Sid asked if he watched it, and Randall told him that he did and that he learned from it. Sid took the film and saw the paper in the exact same spot." Similarly, when Vick was with Atlanta, Jim Mora would send Vick home with DVDs of game film. Vick admitted in a 2010 interview with Mora that, "The DVDs would pile up in my car." Both Cunningham and Vick are athletic, electrifying, human highlight reels capable of beating teams with their feet. Both are atop the career quarterback rushing list, both have similar QB ratings, and sack percentages. And both have never won a Super Bowl.
It’s not so much that Vick has been mis-educated throughout his career, but more that he has been re-educated too often, ineffectively. Vick is kind of like a computer with conflicting layers of subroutines, each one trying to correct the errors of the one before. On one level, it’s understandable. There is no single way to play football, no single way to learn an offense, no single way to read a defense. Each coach, each team, each philosophy, each play is as unique as the captain commanding the line of scrimmage. And Vick has had many coaches. During his six years in Atlanta, Vick had five combinations of head coaches and offensive coordinators. In eleven seasons, Vick will have seven different pairs of head coaches and offensive coordinators. So as he embarks on yet another chapter, he may need to delete what he has learned previously, not merely set aside for later recollection.
Chip Kelly considers him and his staff good teachers. If this is the case then Vick can serve as a great reward, that is, if Vick can be re-educated effectively and remain healthy. For Michael Vick to be a successful quarterback in 2013, Kelly needs to balance delicately Vick’s inherent desire to be unleashed with the need for Vick to play within a structured system. It’s possible that Kelly is the right man for the job. For Vick’s sake, he better be. The 33 year-old will be playing for a contract, and even though it’s been 13 years since Vick was drafted, this will be his eleventh season. So in football years, let’s make him 31. There is much on the line.
Ultimately, this Eagles fan doesn’t really care about all of that. What I do care about is this: as the season progresses, Kelly needs to recognize that Philadelphia doesn’t want another Randall Cunningham, a player capable of incredible individual performances. No, instead Philadelphia wants a Super Bowl. So far, I think he does.
And here's that incredible Cunningham play: