FOR THREE SEASONS in Atlanta, Matt Schaub sat behind Michael Vick and learned what to do to be a successful NFL quarterback.
He also learned some of the things not to do.
During this resurgent season, Vick has talked openly about how he probably didn't work quite his hardest in Atlanta; that maybe he skated out of the Falcons' practice facility a little earlier than he should have. The guy could run like the wind and throw like a starting pitcher and his athleticism was usually enough, especially in 2004 when at 24, he led Atlanta to the NFC Championship Game. But, oh, what might have been.
Schaub was a rookie in that '04 season, a third-rounder from Virginia and West Chester East High School. He sat behind Vick for three seasons before they went their separate ways. Schaub went to the Houston Texans to become their starting quarterback. A month later, Vick's dogfighting scandal broke and his life journey detoured through federal prison.
"At the time," Schaub said yesterday, "he was doing so many great things that if he just spent an extra hour or 2 here [at practice] throughout the week or whatever, it would be absolutely amazing what he would show on film and accomplish on the field someday."
Kind of like what Vick is doing in 2010, for example.
"He still went out there on Sundays and got the job done," Schaub continued. "On the field, he was such a special player. I couldn't duplicate his athleticism and how fast he was because I wasn't that type of guy. But watching him go through the game plan, and how he studied and in the film room and dealing with the media on a weekly basis, how he just carried himself was the stuff that I could draw from.
"You can definitely see that he is a changed person and a guy that is realizing what he could do by putting in the extra time and the time spent getting ready for the game by studying."
Unfortunately, this year hasn't been nearly as kind to Schaub.
After registering one of the NFL's most prolific passing seasons a year ago, Schaub's numbers are way down. Coach Gary Kubiak says that his quarterback's decline is merely a function of a vastly improved running game led by Arian Foster. Schaub, who did throw for a franchise-record 497 yards in Week 2 against the Redskins, also has battled a bursa-sac problem the last few weeks.
"We're a different football team this year," Kubiak said. "Last year, for us to move the ball, we were throwing it on a regular basis. We're pretty much, yardagewise, the same team that we were last year. We just are different. We've got a helluva running back and we're running the ball well. We're trying to control the ball."
Foster leads the league in rushing and yards from scrimmage, so the Texans (seventh in rushing this season) are much different than a year ago when they finished 30th in running the ball. Houston's problem is that it is the same team where it counts the most: wins and losses.
Houston was 5-6 at this time a year ago, but closed with a four-game winning streak to finish with the first winning season in franchise history, stirring optimism for 2010. The Texans started well enough, but were unlucky and inconsistent immediately following their bye. Houston stopped the bleeding with a 20-0 win last week against Tennessee and is scrambling with a couple of other 5-6 teams in the crowded AFC playoff race.
"It's been a roller-coaster year," Schaub said. "Coming out of the gates 4-2 and our bye week and then losing four straight. Especially the way we lost a few of the games - the San Diego, the Jacksonville and the Jets games in a row - that came down to the wire and could have gone either way. But that's the way this game goes sometimes and you can only bounce back and come back next week."
Schaub will have a full crew of family and friends on hand tomorrow night for his first career start against the team he grew up rooting for. He made an appearance at Lincoln Financial Field in 2006 subbing for Vick (ironically in each's final game with the Falcons), but couldn't pull out the win.
"It's a tremendous atmosphere up there," he said. "Growing up an Eagles fan and going to the Vet to watch the games, [they have] the best fans hands-down in the country. Definitely down here in Houston, we have some great ones. But up there in Philly, it's going to be a raucous stadium and a fun atmosphere and we're looking forward to it."
Schaub said he and Vick had a friendly relationship. They might not have gone out to dinner much, but they would certainly yap about the rivalry between their collegiate alma maters. Vick went to Virginia Tech.
They will meet tomorrow night, more than 4 years after the final time they were teammates and on the very same field. Schaub says he's better for having sat behind Vick.
Vick expressed similar respect.
"Schaub's my guy," the Eagles quarterback said. "I always knew Schaub was going to be good. I always used to tell him that he had a bright future. And you can see it in him. When he went out there, he played smart. He was a competitor, always played with an edge and always prepared well."
It sounds like they've learned from each other.
Eagles rookie defensive end Brandon Graham was envious that Houston wide receiver Andre Johnson avoided suspension for his nasty fight Sunday with Tennessee's Cortland Finnegan.
"I wish I could get away with something like that," he laughed. "There's so many people that want to let loose on a lot of people. But that's them. We're going to make sure we go out there and don't have no highlights of things like that."
The emergence of Arian Foster as the starter and Derrick Ward as the backup has put a serious crimp into Steve Slaton's playing time. Slaton, from Conwell-Egan, ran for 1,282 yards as a rookie in 2008, but had trouble with fumbles. This season, he has just 93 yards on 19 carries. Expect him to return kickoffs tomorrow . . . Linebacker Brian Cushing (knee), coming off his best game of the year, and star defensive end Mario Williams (groin) were limited participants in practice yesterday, though both are expected to play. Tight end Owen Daniels (hamstring) did not practice; his availability is less likely. *