Not that long ago, there was no agreed-upon method for how an NFL defense should deal with quarterback Michael Vick. Teams employed different philosophies against him, although which worked and which didn't often depended on the day.
The Eagles' own resident genius on the defensive side, Jim Johnson, favored a "mush rush" to keep Vick from squirting like a seed through gaps in the pressure, a spy to deter him from taking off downfield, and tight coverage on the receivers as long as it could last.
Johnson loved to blitz opposing quarterbacks, but he didn't thinking blitzing Vick often was either smart or necessary. He thought the way to beat Vick was to make him a pocket passer, load up the coverages, and dare him to string together some completions.
That didn't look like a bad theory at the end of the 2004 season, when the Eagles advanced to the Super Bowl by beating Atlanta and capturing what is their only NFC championship in the Andy Reid era. The Eagles won the game, 27-10, and Vick was a scattershot 11 for 24 with an interception. He was also sacked four times.
Over the years, other teams tried a variety of ways to bell the cat. When Vick was enjoying his breakout year with the Eagles in 2010 after taking over for Kevin Kolb, unprepared opponents scurried frantically to invent a means to defend him.
He saw plenty of blitzes from teams that believed he wouldn't play well if he got knocked around. The other side of the knife for those teams, however, was that Vick was likely to take off and gash them on downfield runs if they missed him.
He also saw opponents adopt some form of Johnson's policy of aggressive containment, but because of his threat to run, defenses had to play him honestly and he completed a career high 63 percent of his passes.
In keeping with his history of unpredictability on the field, Vick ran the ball himself on 20 percent of the plays in 2010 that weren't handoffs to another runner. He threw the ball 372 times, was sacked 34 times, and ran it 100 times. So, one of every five times he had the ball in his hands after the snap, he became a runner. (That's nothing. In getting his team to that 2004 NFC championship game, Vick was a runner one of every four plays that season, taking off on an amazing 25 percent of non-handoff plays. Against Johnson's defense in the championship, however, he was able to run only four times in 32 similar opportunities, or exactly half that percentage.)
That unpredictability drove defensive coordinators crazy. They make their living on detecting tendencies and playing the odds in their favor when they do. Trying to decipher what Vick might do on any play was very difficult. Every snap was a snowflake, different from all the others around it. When Michael Vick was good, that was a large part of what made him good, and the Eagles benefited from the confusion of others.
Well, here we are in 2012 and the Eagles have, in the last two seasons, done what no NFL defense could ever do: make Vick predictable. Andy Reid, being a football coach who likes to know what's coming, wanted Vick to develop his skills as a pocket quarterback. He thought that would help prevent injuries and unnecessary hits, too, but generally Reid wanted Vick in the pocket because that's where he wants his quarterbacks.
There was little reason to believe Vick would thrive playing that way, but, to his credit, Vick didn't fight the machine. By all reports, he threw himself into the book work and film work for the position, committing himself to learning all the read progressions in the Eagles' passing scheme, which is a few.
Last season, Vick stayed in the pocket like a dutiful soldier, running the ball himself just 15 percent of the time when that or a sack or a pass were the options. Vick was in the pocket and defenses knew right where to find him. They targeted him for an increasing number of blitzes and hectored him into a career-high 14 interceptions. Vick suffered four separate injuries during the season, and they all occurred in the pocket, not on the open field.
As this season opened - after Vick suffered two more in-the-pocket injuries in exhibition games - the quarterback has been even more predictable, and defenses are getting bolder by the week in coming after him. If you take away kneel-downs, Vick has run the ball just over 10 percent of the time when that was an option. Opponents have stopped fearing what made the quarterback special.
Meanwhile, as Vick has become more predictable, so has the Eagles offense. Opponents laugh when they see a play-action fake, because the Eagles never run the ball. They have used very few screen passes, dump passes, surprise draw plays, whatever, to take the heat off Vick, and he has been pounded again and again.
That pressure has led, in large part, to the six interceptions and three lost fumbles charged against the quarterback as he stands and stands and stands, just where he was told to, flipping through the progressions and waiting patiently for that guy down there to make just one more cut and . . . oof!
Reid has taken a unique weapon and made him into a common one. He has taken Michael Vick and turned him into Kevin Kolb. It would have been a lot easier to just keep the original if that was the plan.
There are some gray areas here that people like to bring up. There is the question of whether Vick, at 32, can still run as well as he did in 2010. (Why not?) There is the belief that Vick is better in a scripted universe with fewer decisions to make. (Here's a hint on how the script ends: Vick gets hurt.) There is the sense that Reid believes this team can win with great defense and a well-managed offense, and that Vick on the loose is a cannon crashing against the gunwales of that tidy ship. (Well, what's with all the turnovers then?)
Pegging Vick to the pocket like a circus elephant held by a tent stake isn't working. It might work (at least better) if Reid and Marty Mornhinweg would help him out a little with the play-calling, but that doesn't seem likely.
Right now, Vick is exactly the wrong quarterback for the Eagles because his greatest advantage has been removed. He's the wrong guy because when Reid decided he needed to know where his quarterback was going to be, he forgot that the other team would know as well.