ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The number is now one. Yes, after all of the games that have passed since, all of the players who have come and gone in the Denver Broncos' locker room since Halloween 2004, cornerback Champ Bailey now stands alone.
A party of one. He is the only player remaining who was in a Broncos uniform for a remember-when game against Michael Vick. At the time, Vick’s jersey sales were off the chart and he was the next level of athleticism with a power arm. Vick represented what the future of the position just might be.
When he was the guy, even those among the NFL’s elite would simply stop to watch when he had the ball in his hands and a small window of open space in front of him.
“At that time, no question, there wasn’t anybody really like him," Bailey said. “That’s how we looked at it that week. We put on the tape and you watched him and he just did things other guys weren’t doing, with speed nobody else had, really. That game, I still look at that even now like that’s still probably one of his best games of his career. We had no answer for what he brought that day."
On that day, Vick was 18-of-24 passing for 252 yards and two touchdowns in a 41-28 Falcons win that saw any memory of Jake Plummer's franchise-record 499 yards passing disappear in Vick's jetwash. Vick did not throw an interception and the Broncos sacked him just once. Vick also ran for 115 yards on 12 carries, including a 44-yard, double-take worthy effort on a third-and-3 play during the Falcons’ first possession of the day.
That was all before Vick’s arrest, his incarceration, his life’s rebound and his career resurrection in Philadelphia. Vick returns to Denver Sunday, his first trip back as a starting quarterback since the ’04 affair and he returns as a slightly different player, almost a decade older and once again on the cutting edge of whatever becomes of Chip Kelly’s offense in the NFL. Asked this week if he could recall the ’04 trip to Denver, Vick said; “I think Jake Plummer was the quarterback, Mike Shanahan was the coach ... and it’s not an easy place to play."
Reminded he had rushed for more than 100 yards in the game, Vick said with a laugh; “Well, I was a lot younger back then."
“He was a bigger threat running the ball back then, I believe," Bailey said. “But he’s still a threat, a great threat running the ball. But he was just on point that day. He didn’t show all that on tape in previous games. That was one of his best games of his career. I know it because he probably ran for 100 and threw for two-something ... I look back and I think that was a big moment for him, because I don't think I had seen him put a whole game together like that, running, throwing, in the pocket, on the move, until that day."
And there have certainly been times in Vick’s career when his NFL peers perhaps appreciated his athletic gifts more than the public at large. In Vick’s time in Atlanta, players often responded to any question that included “most dynamic" or “most athletic" or “toughest to defend" in it with Vick’s name.
“I think that’s true," said Broncos defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson, an eighth-year veteran. “Guys I knew would always be talking about how (Vick) played, what he did. And then I would talk to friends who weren't in the league or something like that and they would say they didn't see it, or whatever, but I think guys in this league have known what (Vick) can do."
And also in Kelly’s read-option attack Vick, who is suddenly the oldest player on the Eagles’ roster. Another sort of remake for the only quarterback in league history to have thrown for at least 20,000 yards and rushed for at least 5,000 yards in a career. He has a 400-yard passing game already this season -- 428 yards in the loss to the Chargers earlier this month -- and he’s also been sacked six times, by the Chiefs last week, as the Eagles try to settle in to a new way of doing things in a 1-2 start.
“But I just look at it now, he’s still doing those things, he’s still breaking off those big runs, escaping, all those things," Vickerson said. “It all looks the same to me."
Vick has been battered at times in his three previous seasons as the Eagles' starter. He missed three games each in the 2010 and 2011 seasons with rib injuries and missed six games last season after suffering a concussion against the Cowboys last Nov. 11. And questions have swirled about whether Vick is the long-term answer at quarterback as for Kelly's offense, or as a long-term an answer as a 33-year-old quarterback who is his team’s second-leading rusher can be. But as far as the Broncos are concerned those are decisions for another day by other people.
They see only Vick now, for the most part, as he was back in 2004.
“Michael Vick has been a talented football player as long as he’s been in the league," Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said. “He’s been a guy that can beat you with his feet and beat you with his arm … I kind of feel like that’s always been the case and in particular when he’s healthy and part of a good team."