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Thursday, May 21, 2009
Updated: July 27, 4:11 PM ET
Offensive changes working against Vick

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

Now that Michael Vick has emerged from prison, he can start preparing a game plan for his return to the NFL.

He has already taken a few steps. Vick hired a personal trainer to help get his body ready for the NFL. He met with Tony Dungy while in prison, which could help prepare him for his meeting with commissioner Roger Goodell, who must determine if Vick's suspension will extend into this season or if time served in prison is enough.

What hasn't been discussed is how the game changed during the two years Vick was away. Sure, football is football, and Vick can still be a rare talent at the age of 28. But it may scare him to see how the NFL has gotten away from his style of quarterbacking.

Two years is an eternity in the NFL. That time Vick missed is just another roadblock for him, and in some ways, it should be factored in when Goodell decides whether to let Vick sign with a team in 2009.

Missing three seasons might be impossible to overcome.

Let's review the strategic changes that occurred during the two seasons Vick missed while he was imprisoned for running a dogfighting operation. The most significant change is how offenses have spread the field with more wide receivers, which isn't Vick's best style of football.

In 2006, when Vick was last on the field, 65.9 percent of overall pass attempts came in spread formations (three or more wide receivers). That percentage jumped significantly in 2007, to 70.4.

Tom Brady could be partially credited for that rapid jump. His Patriots went 16-0 and Brady threw for 50 touchdowns in 2007. More offensive coordinators copied some of the Patriots' offensive package in 2008, and the percentage went to 70.9.

During Vick's two missed seasons, slot receivers such as Wes Welker, Greg Camarillo, Bobby Engram and many others developed into essential parts of the offense. Now, most teams have to have that elusive inside receiver to create mismatches in three-receiver sets.

Vick's game was creating his own mismatches, using his mobility, against safeties playing near the line of scrimmage. Defenses tried to position safeties or linebackers in ways to prevent Vick from escaping the pocket and breaking long runs. Some of the safeties Vick used to beat have been run out of the game.

Sure, running the football remains important, but teams have been trying to get away from the conventional fullback-led running attack because fullbacks are hard to find coming out of college. In Vick's last season, he was a middle-of-the-pack quarterback in three-receiver sets, completing 55.6 percent of his passes with a quarterback rating of 84. When the 2006 Falcons spread the field with four and five receiving options, Vick was one of the worst quarterbacks in the league. He completed 48.6 percent of his throws and had a horrible 44.4 rating.

The NFL is going for quicker, shorter throws, and accuracy wasn't the best part of Vick's game. His completion percentage dropped in each of his last three seasons -- from 56.4 to 55.3 to 52.6. Vick needs as much time on the field as possible working on completing short passes out of three- and five-step drops.

The other major problem facing Vick is the development of a middle class of quarterbacks. I call it the "Matt Schaub Middle Class." Schaub, Matt Cassel, Kyle Orton, David Garrard and Trent Edwards are five quarterbacks who have developed over the past year or two, and they have similarities. They are accurate enough on short and intermediate passes to have 65 percent completion potential. They show good command in the huddle. Whenever we rank the league's starting quarterbacks, these guys fall in that 17-to-22 area.

And I think that middle class list is actually longer than the five I just mentioned. I think Jason Campbell is accurate enough to be included. If Brady Quinn wins the starting job in Cleveland, I believe he would settle into that group. The 49ers' Shaun Hill may not excite a lot of scouts, but he seems to be on the fringe of that middle class. He was a 62.8 percent passer last season and the 49ers' offense averaged 21 points a game when he was running it. Given a year or two, Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez should rise into that middle class, as well.

The expansion of that middle class will starve Vick for chances to play. Maybe that middle class isn't considered great, but it's a competent group, leaving very few teams without a decent starting quarterback. The development of these quarterbacks has taken the NFL's average completion percentage from 59.7 to 61.

Vick's 52.6 completion percentage won't appeal to most teams, and Vick needs to find coaches willing to work with him and improve his short passing game.

When you study those numbers closely, it becomes clear that Vick is at a serious disadvantage because of the two years he has missed. He's going to have enough trouble updating his game to fit 2009 football. If Vick is forced to miss another season, it could be a career-ending punishment.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.