Have you heard? The Philadelphia Eagles are having a great offseason. Yeah, again. They settled the DeSean Jackson contract mess, extended deals for a few key veterans, stole middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans from the Texans and, according to many analysts, may have had the best draft of any team in the league. If the season were starting today, I guarantee they'd be the most popular pick to win the NFC East, ahead of the Super Bowl champion Giants and everyone else.
But me, I'm not so sure. I need to see it from the quarterback.
Michael Vick will enter the 2012 season under more pressure than any other quarterback in the NFL. The Eagles have told anyone who'll listen that they believe last year's team was too talented to go 8-8, that it got better as the year went along and that the four-game winning streak that closed their season can have a carryover effect into 2012. But no matter how true any of those assertions turn out to be, it's still going to be up to Vick to cash them in.
The defense took a lot of the heat for the Eagles' 2011 disappointment, and early on it did struggle to come together. But it finished eighth in the league in fewest yards allowed and tied for the league lead in sacks. If the defense does that again, it's going to be tough to blame whatever goes wrong on that side of the ball.
It was on the offensive side that Vick turned the ball over 14 times during last year's 3-6 start, coughed up the Arizona game by playing with broken ribs and not telling anyone and then missed three games during which backup Vince Young threw enough interceptions to make Vick look like the world champion of darts. Vick was as responsible for the Eagles' flop of a season as anyone else was, and it's worth making a point of that as the Eagles look ahead to 2012 with high hopes. Because that word -- "responsible" -- is the one the Eagles would most like Vick to keep in mind.
The Eagles don't need Vick to be the dazzling, electrified, high-speed wonder he was in 2010. It'd be nice, but no one expects him to repeat that once-in-a-lifetime performance and no one ever did. What the Eagles wanted from Vick in 2011 was to evolve a bit as a top-level quarterback -- to assume more responsibility for the offense, not to mention the ball and his own body. Vick has undeniable athletic talent of a sort no one else in the league could ever dream. But what he has yet to do is take that critical next step that transforms quarterback talent into quarterback success.
The quarterbacks who become great in the NFL are the ones who treat the position as a craft to be perpetually honed and refined. Vick had that opportunity in 2011 as a clear starter on a team that surrounded him with brilliant weapons. At the urging of new offensive line coach Howard Mudd, who prefers things to work this way, Vick was for the first time in his Eagles career given the responsibility of calling the protection at the line of scrimmage -- of reading the defense before the snap and calling out the assignments for the linemen based on what he saw. At the beginning of the year, it caused confusion, as one might expect. But even as the year went on, Vick struggled to get in sync with his line.
Part of that is the style with which he plays -- running around behind the line, determined to keep plays alive past a point at which most quarterbacks would have thrown the ball out of bounds. But that's part of this responsibility theme, too. Part of Vick's maturation as a quarterback needs to include knowing what he should and shouldn't try -- and when. If he becomes more responsible about knowing the right and wrong times to take chances, that'll help his protection, his turnovers and his health.
And he has to take care of those last two things above all else. No team can afford to turn the ball over as much as the Eagles in did in 2011, and the Eagles can't afford to play without Vick. As proud as they are of their draft, last year's free agency and the depth of talent on their roster, they're not a contender if Mike Kafka or Nick Foles or Trent Edwards is the guy taking the snaps for an extended period of time. Just as they weren't a contender last year when Young was under center. The Eagles' offense is built around Vick and must run through him or it's not going to operate on the level required of a team with Super Bowl aspirations.
So the pressure on Vick isn't just to win -- it's to be responsible. To think more carefully about his throws and his other on-field decisions. To keep the big picture in mind. If he can do this -- if he can take these next critical steps in his development as a quarterback, even at the age of 32, Vick is good enough to cash in his opportunity. He's good enough to pilot an offense that has Jackson and Jeremy Maclin and LeSean McCoy to playoff glory. He's good enough to come up with that signature game-winning fourth-quarter drive his résumé still lacks. He's got the talent and he's got everything in place around him to help him succeed. But once the curtain goes up on this 2012 season, it's going to be on Vick himself to make sure he does. It may well be the best and last chance he ever gets.