Hope springs eternal every NFL offseason. It’s what keeps millions of fans of each NFL franchise (and millions more across the plane of sports as a whole) looking at the upcoming season each summer with the expectation of good results.
Even those franchises in clear rebuilding modes are given that benefit of the doubt from their fanbase that they will get it together in the next few years and figure things out. People are drawn to the moments of euphoria they experience when their favorite sports team does well — moments which become supercharged over time thanks to nostalgia — and they cling to hope as that beacon inside of their minds, telling them that more of those moments are not too far off.
I would be hard-pressed to argue that any one player embodied those feelings of hope to the Atlanta Falcons fanbase more so than Michael Vick.
The accolades Vick achieved in his NFL career were pretty good — a four-time Pro Bowl selection, including thrice in four years between 2002-2005, the 2010 NFL Comeback Player of the Year and AP Offensive Player of the Year runner-up and the 2004 NFL MVP runner-up. His statistics were also solid, although not quite a match for his high-end contemporaries like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Brett Favre.
Anybody can cite whatever box scores and accolades they would like, and while I’m not saying that they aren’t important, I am saying that they don’t tell the whole story of just how special Mike Vick was on an NFL field, and it would not do him justice to just regurgitate the stats.
A quarterback who electrified the entire college football landscape from the moment he stepped onto the field at Virginia Tech as a redshirt freshman, before running a preposterous 4.25-second 40-yard dash at his pro day ahead of the 2001 NFL Draft, Vick seemed like an advanced evolutionary being at the quarterback position whose arrival was a message of what the position might become in the coming years and decades.
The Falcons, infatuated with the star QB, traded up to the first overall pick of the 2001 draft and brought Vick into the fold as the expected savior of a franchise whose good years had been complete outliers from the wilderness of mediocrity they had been wandering since their inception in 1966. Vick was tasked with being the guiding light which would bring the Falcons out of the darkness and into sustained success.
There are few players who have ever struck fear into opposing defensive coordinators and fanbases the way Vick did. The hope that the Falcons fanbase had in No. 7 was felt in a micro sense just as much as it was in a macro sense — while he was tabbed as the franchise savior, there was this hope and even expectation that the next play with Vick under center would always be something spectacular.
The franchise and the fanbase had to have felt immediate vindication regarding the trade-up and their expectations upon the completion of Vick’s first full year as the starter, in 2002. Throwing for 2,936 yards, rushing for 777 (at the time the third-highest single-season mark for a quarterback in NFL history) and scoring 26 total touchdowns, No. 7 was top 5 in MVP voting and led the Falcons to the team’s first playoff appearance in four years.
In the postseason, Michael Vick led the Falcons up to Wisconsin for a game against a heavily favored Green Bay Packers team that had a lot going for it — future Hall of Famer Brett Favre and a 12-4 roster made up this rendition of the storied franchise which had legitimate Super Bowl aspirations. They also had the ghosts of Lambeau Field on their side, dictating that Atlanta’s cute little run with their gimmicky quarterback must be slain within their confines, where the Packers had never before lost in the postseason (11-0), and where the Pack had not lost a single game all regular season.
It’s almost as if the stage was set for Atlanta’s funeral upon kickoff, when the thermometer read 31 degrees Fahrenheit, just below freezing at 32 and below the magic number of 34, under which conditions Favre was 35-0 in his career playing at home.
Much like Vick’s career as a whole, I simply cannot do his performance in this game justice just by reading you off his box score, which does look unspectacular (117 passing yards, 64 rushing yards, 1 total touchdown). Much like with his career as a whole, you just had to be in that moment witnessing this 22-year-old kid making play after play in seemingly every crucial situation, perplexing and stifling a defense that just couldn’t contain him, and driving the mighty Green Bay Packers to their knees with a 27-7 victory, in the process looking those ghosts in the eye with a rebellious confidence indicating that their rules of logic and “what’s supposed to happen” didn’t apply to him.
At just the age of 22, Vick had already the type of signature moment many quarterbacks strive to achieve in their careers. He did it in a Falcons uniform, for a franchise that had spent its entire history getting routinely smacked around by legacy teams like the Packers. That was their historic place, but Vick had finally come along to play the role of equalizer.
During these years, Atlanta was in the midst of experiencing the type of growth that changed the entire landscape of the city. It was the center of the hip hop universe, one of the coolest places to be, and the flag bearer of the entire southeast. The setting felt like a match made in heaven for Vick, who turned the Georgia Dome into the city’s pièce de résistance.
Atlanta had a love affair with its quarterback, and the entire NFL was infatuated by the electrifying young star. Following that 2002 season, Vick graced the cover of the popular NFL Madden franchise, where he became one of the most dominant video game characters of all time, to the point where Madden 04 is still talked about to this day solely because of him. Playing with Vick in Madden that year was essentially like having a created player with fully adjusted sliders already packaged and ready to go but on the Falcons’ roster.
Vick went on to lead the Falcons to the team’s first division title since 1998, in the 2004 season, before helping bring them to the NFC Conference Championship Game. He finished as the runner up in the MVP race and was the sole reason why Peyton Manning was not a unanimous selection that year. He then went on to become the first QB in NFL history to rush for 1,000 yards in a season, in 2006.
Vick had a career resurrection in Philadelphia following a federal dogfighting conviction which landed him in prison and cost him a chance to play in 2007 and 2008. After playing sporadically in 2009, he found himself back under center as a full-time starter and had the best statistical season of his career in 2010, accounting for a career high 30 total touchdowns in just 12 games, winning Comeback Player of the Year and making what would be his final Pro Bowl appearance after leading the Eagles to a division title.
After another successful 2011 season, Vick began fading out into the sunset before making his final appearance in the NFL, with the Steelers, in 2015.
Despite the fact that he’s no longer in the league, Mike Vick’s influence lives on. There’s a subsection of special athletes within this new generation of football players — led by 2016 Heisman Trophy winner and 2019 NFL MVP Lamar Jackson — who represent a new breed of explosive dual-threat quarterback in the NFL. They grew up watching No. 7, maybe even playing as him on Madden 04, and many now model their game after him.
In his MVP season, Jackson broke the single-season QB rushing record that Vick set 13 years earlier. Along the way, Vick himself threw support behind Jackson saying that “records are meant to be broken” and when asked about being the one to break it, Jackson was quoted as saying “It’d be an honor. Michael Vick’s my favorite player. For me to do such a thing, it’s incredible. He had that record for a long time. It’d be pretty cool.”
Beyond Jackson, this generation of signal callers features more dual-threat players than ever before, and the freedom they’ve been afforded to use their legs gives their teams the same upper hand the Falcons of the early-to-mid 2000s used to enjoy when No. 7 was under center and had to always be accounted for.
Vick doesn’t have overall stats which pop out at you, and he may not even ever make the Hall of Fame (that’s a discussion and debate for another time). He also wasn’t the first quarterback to effectively use his legs, but he was the most dangerous at it and he’s in that rare pantheon of players who legitimately helped change the way the game is played.
As for his time in Atlanta, it truly was one of those rides that can’t be described even when talking about it years later in hindsight. You just had to be there for the Mike Vick experience to fully understand it.
Michael Vick was the hope for this city. Even more than that, Michael Vick himself was the hope.