- Ashley Fox
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PHILADELPHIA -- This is it, and Michael Vick knows it. No more excuses. No more gambling with God-given talent. No more wasting time. No more regrets.
Like his head coach, who was put on notice by owner Jeffrey Lurie after the Eagles' embarrassingly disastrous 8-8 season in 2011, Vick is at a critical juncture in his career and tenure in Philadelphia. He is entering his 10th NFL season and his fourth with the Eagles. He is 32 years old. He should be staring at the prime of his career, with as much talent surrounding him as he has ever had.
It is all set up for him, but there is one caveat: If Vick doesn't play well, if he doesn't execute Andy Reid's game plan, if he stumbles or gets hurt or doesn't lead the Eagles deep into the playoffs, this perfect situation he finds himself in heading into this season will disappear. It will all be over, for him and for Reid.
There might not be more pressure on any coach and quarterback entering this season as there is on Reid and Vick, and Vick is well aware of it, yet unfazed. He must perform -- now -- and the Eagles must win.
"It's a critical year for Coach. It's a critical year for me," Vick told me Tuesday, the first day of the Eagles' voluntary full-squad practice. "I just feel like I've got everything I need as a player. [It is] the first time I've been surrounded by this much talent, having a full offseason with Coach Reid, which I think is going to be invaluable.
"We're playing for it all -- for our organization, not just for Coach. It's a critical year for our whole team."
Playing for it all. Vick wasn't talking about merely winning a division championship or a playoff game. Those milestones are nice, but in Philadelphia under Lurie's ownership and, more specifically during Reid's coaching tenure, winning a division title has become so commonplace that it is now unsatisfactory if not accompanied by a deep playoff run. The expectations are to win the Super Bowl and lift the Lombardi trophy for the first time in team history. Nothing else will suffice.
There are plenty of subplots with the Eagles. How will Juan Castillo, Philadelphia's longtime offensive line coach, fare in his second season as defensive coordinator? Will DeSean Jackson have a big year now that the Eagles finally rewarded him with a new contract? Can Nnamdi Asomugha rebound after a disappointing first year in Philly playing in a scheme that was not suited to his talents? Will DeMeco Ryans prove to be the middle linebacker the Eagles have been looking for since Jeremiah Trotter was in his prime? Will Jason Kelce thrive in his second season snapping the ball to Vick, and will he assume the offensive line calls Vick made last season?
But as interesting as those individual stories, and others, are, this is all about Reid and Vick.
As he was after the lockout last year, Vick is in phenomenal shape, lean and strong. Unlike years past, he has spent the better chunk of the offseason in Philly, working out at the team's practice facility and studying more film than he ever has in his career. He estimated that "65 percent of my time has been spent in this building, just dedicating myself to working harder."
This is the first time Vick will have a true offseason as the Eagles' starter, complete with minicamps and organized team activities, and he has embraced the opportunity to learn from Reid, offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg and quarterbacks coach Doug Pederson.
Mornhinweg said Vick is "night and day" ahead of where he was in August, both in terms of his technique and fundamentals and his understanding of what the coaches want him to do. But the question is whether that understanding will translate to on-field production.
Too often last season, Vick freelanced. It is a fine balance with Vick between capitalizing on his ability to scramble and keeping him upright on the field. He said he knows he must cut down on the turnovers from last season, increase his passing yards and throw more touchdowns. He also needs to play a full season, something that has happened only once in his career, in 2006, before it all unraveled for him.
The expectations on Vick "are high; always are," Mornhinweg said. "He knows the exact expectations."
Said Vick: "Just be 10 times better than I was last season."
Vick has had plenty of time to pick at the carcass of the 2011 season. What he understands now, and is trying to impart to the team, is that "just because we're the Philadelphia Eagles, nobody's going to lay down.
"Having a different attitude and mindset, you've got to be prepared and you've got to go out and give it everything you got and do whatever it takes to win," Vick said. "Every man on this team has to have that attitude, because one guy cannot win a championship. Ten guys cannot win a championship. It takes 53 in all three phases of the game."
Suffice it to say, the Eagles bought into the whole "dream team" thing last season. They were a collection of talented individuals but didn't really become a team until the last month of the season, and at that point, it was much too late.
The Eagles have few issues at this point. Jackson is happy. LeSean McCoy got paid. Philadelphia also extended the contracts of two popular veterans: tackle Todd Herremans and defensive end Trent Cole. Asante Samuel is gone. Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie know their roles. The offensive line will miss Jason Peters, but they were able to obtain a decent replacement in Demetress Bell.
The Eagles have talent and lack significant external distractions.
So it boils down to Vick and Reid. On being on the same page with Reid and his staff, Vick said, "I've never felt like this before." He is working. He is listening. Will it pay off?
"I tell Coach Reid all the time, 'I wish you could've [brought] me here first. I wish you could've drafted me,'" Vick said. "That's just an 'if.' We've got to live in the now, and I've got to take full advantage of the time I have now.
"That's what I'm going to do. I'm going to finish strong."
He'd better, because if he doesn't, this will be it.
Everything is in place for Michael Vick and Andy Reid to succeed in 2012, and neither can afford to falter, writes Ashley Fox.