The Philadelphia Eagles do not have a great offensive line. It’s young and rebuilding. But even if the Eagles had the 1995 Dallas Cowboys’ line (Pro Bowlers Nate Newton, Mark Tuinei, Larry Allen, Ray Donaldson; two-time All-Pro Erik Williams), armchair analysts would still be carping about quarterback Michael Vick needing better protection.
What Vick really needs is major refinement in pro quarterbacking fundamentals. Here are four reasons his offensive line, no matter how well it plays, will always look bad:
1. Pre-snap issues. Vick struggles to identify blitzes and understand protection concepts before the snap. Consequently, he’s reactionary after the snap. A great example was in Week 3 against the Giants.
On third-and-6 in the first quarter, linebacker Jacquian Williams blitzed inside. This gave the Giants six pass-rushers, one more man than the Eagles and their empty backfield had in protection. Vick did not audible or adjust the protection. That’s fine, though. All it meant was that with the Eagles in slide protection and the receivers running short routes, he had to get rid of the ball quickly.
This, however, did not register with Vick. In fact, he didn’t react to Williams until he saw the No. 57 jersey bursting into the backfield. Vick was able to elude Williams, but he had to make a hurried, off-balance throw well after intended receiver Steve Smith had completed his route. The result was a tipped interception, ascribed to disrupted timing and flow. (Vick still got hit at the end of the throw.)
2. Reads. Even if Vick never scrambled again, he’d still take a lot of hits because he holds the ball so long. The question is why. Sometimes it’s Vick relying on his athletic instincts to make something out of nothing. More often, though, Vick makes nothing out of what could have been something, and so he’s compelled to run around and try to make a new “something.”
Because he doesn’t read the field well pre-snap, Vick’s first meaningful read often occurs once the action starts. So already he’s a half-second behind in processing information. More damning, though, is that he doesn’t process information well when it changes. Defenses give Vick fits by rolling coverage after the snap or dropping players in and out of zone looks. By the time the dust settles, the play has been going on for two seconds but Vick isn’t any closer to throwing than he was upon taking the snap.
With linemen only able to pass block for so long, Vick’s now liable to throw just before getting hit. Or, he’s liable to scramble. Either way, the viewing audience is liable to groan that Philly’s linemen need to protect their quarterback.
To be fair, Vick is much better at reads than in his Atlanta days. And most quarterbacks couldn’t even survive these slow reads. But most quarterbacks don’t have Vick’s cannon arm or elite wheels.
3. Pocket mobility. Pocket mobility is not like regular mobility. In fact, given that Peyton Manning and Tom Brady -- two players who look like they’re wearing snow boots when they run -- have the best pocket mobility in football, you could argue that pocket mobility and regular mobility are polar opposites.
Pocket mobility pertains primarily to how a quarterback adds cushion to his pass protection bubble by sensing the pass rush and stepping up in the pocket. It’s done with subtle footwork, and the great ones do it without temporarily sacrificing their readiness to pull the trigger.
Vick’s pocket mobility is improving but still iffy. Instead of stepping up in the pocket, he’s more inclined to step laterally (it’s his runner’s instinct). This often creates the illusion of the protection breaking down. Vick also has a tendency to unnecessarily tuck the ball when moving in the pocket. When he does that, he either flees or has to reset his mechanics in order to throw (which takes time). Either way, he has put himself under duress.
But what the public sees is Vick staying in the pocket -- as he has been taught -- and still getting pressured or hit.
4. The drop. A microcosm of Vick’s flaws can be found in his drop-back. A quarterback’s drop is synchronized with the timing of his receivers’ routes. Offensive linemen are familiar with this timing and execute their blocking assignments accordingly. With their backs always to the ball, they can’t see the action taking place. They can only trust the timing.
That timing is compromised if the quarterback’s drops are inconsistent. Watch Vick drop back 30 times. On about 20 of them, he’ll be surprisingly slow, or fast at the bottom of the drop but slow at the top, or vice-versa. It’s hard to say why, though probably it has something to do with Vick’s trouble reading coverages. Some analysts speculate that Vick doesn’t even read the coverage until he gets to the top of his drop. That’s a problem considering the ball is supposed to be out by then. Whatever it is, it makes life hard on a pass protector.
This is not an utter indictment of Michael Vick. He’s the most gifted athlete ever to play quarterback. His lively, high-velocity ball is less talked about but arguably more impressive than his speed and quickness. He has become a committed locker room leader. And he’s improving. But at his core, he’s a sandlot player, and sandlot players will always make an offensive line look bad.
Andy Benoit is the founder of NFLTouchdown.com.