Andy Reid has said often these last few weeks that he wants Michael Vick to put his own personality on Reid's version of the West Coast offense. It is a defense mechanism for Reid, a way for him to avoid giving a no-win answer when asked to compare his new quarterback with the one who was under center most of the last 11 years.
Comparisons between Vick and Donovan McNabb are inevitable, especially with the Eagles and Redskins set to play on Sunday. So is the question. At this point in their careers, who is better: the 30-year-old Vick or the 33-year-old McNabb?
Reid certainly won't go there, but two important statistics - third-down conversion percentage and red-zone efficiency - reveal just who is playing better this season.
In three games with Vick under center, the Eagles are 16 of 36 on third down for a 44.4 percent conversion rate that would be ninth best in the league were it not for the addition of Kevin Kolb's 0-for-4 performance on third down in two quarters against Green Bay. The Packers sacked Kolb twice and intercepted him once on third down; he threw an incompletion the other time. In that game, Vick converted twice on third down in two attempts in the first half, when he spelled Kolb, and then was 4 of 8 with a touchdown in the second half, when Kolb was on the sideline with a concussion.
As it is, the Eagles rank 13th in the NFL in third-down conversion percentage (44.0), and Vick has the league's second-best quarterback rating (122.6) on third down.
Through three games this season against Dallas, Houston, and St. Louis, the Redskins have converted only 6 of 33 times on third down for a league-low 18 percent.
Last week against St. Louis, a team that had won just one of its previous 28 games, the Redskins were 1 of 10 on third down. In overtime against Houston in Week 2, McNabb misfired on a third-and-7 throw to Santana Moss. Graham Gano then missed a 52-yard field-goal attempt, and the Texans scored on their next series to win the game.
Overall, McNabb is 1 for 10 on passes that are third-and-7 or less.
"It is on his shoulders," NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger said. "To me, he can't get away from that responsibility. That's his job to make those throws. Mike is making those throws."
With Vick under center, the Eagles have scored touchdowns on seven of eight trips into the red zone, for an efficiency percentage of 87.5, highest in the league. Inside the red zone, Vick has thrown touchdown passes of 17 yards, 16 yards, and 9 yards, all to Jeremy Maclin. LeSean McCoy has touchdown runs of 12 yards, 14 yards, and 4 yards, and Vick scrambled for a 17-yard score last week against Jacksonville.
The Redskins have scored two touchdowns in nine trips inside their opponent's 20-yard line. In the season opener against Dallas, they settled for a field goal on their first red-zone appearance, and on their second and final trip McNabb threw three incompletions from the Cowboys' 5-yard line, then watched as the field-goal unit botched the attempt.
Against Houston the next week, Washington scored two touchdowns - a 1-yard run by Clinton Portis and a 22-yard strike from McNabb to tight end Chris Cooley - in four trips inside the red zone. The Redskins kicked a field goal and also had a field goal blocked. In three trips last week against St. Louis, they ended up with three field goals.
"Donovan is playing in a system it looks like he's still trying to learn, and he doesn't have nearly the weapons [Vick has]," Baldinger said. "Santana Moss is still a good player. Mike Shanahan is there to fix the offense, but they're last in the league in the most important category in football outside of scoring, and Donovan is a part of it."
It is true that Vick has better weapons than McNabb. Jackson ranks third in the NFL with 318 receiving yards, trailing Indianapolis's Austin Collie (359 yards) and Denver's Brandon Lloyd (339 yards). Maclin is tied with Collie and San Diego's Antonio Gates for first in the league with four touchdown receptions.
But to his credit, Vick is throwing the long ball consistently well. In six seasons in Atlanta, two of which saw him receive limited playing time, Vick threw 71 touchdown passes, but only three were of 45 yards or more. Of his six touchdown passes this season, three have been for at least 45 yards - two to Jackson and one to Maclin.
McNabb has thrown two touchdown passes all season.
"In Atlanta, we all saw this terrific athlete, maybe the most exciting player in the game, but he was more of a scrambler than a quarterback," said former coach Steve Mariucci, now also an NFL Network analyst. "He won. He was exciting, went to Pro Bowls, led the team to the NFC championship game. But really his passing, passer rating, his statistics, completion percentage, all of that was very subpar. Let's face it, it was not good enough to win with those passing stats alone. He needed his legs.
"We see in these last three games . . . [Vick] has been really proficient at throwing the ball from the pocket, and that is where his improvement shows up right now. Every now and then he'll still take off and score touchdowns and outrun everybody. But it's throwing the ball from the pocket that has been really impressive. If he can continue to be comfortable back there and make plays from there as well, whoa. I think you've really got something."
Eagles offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg has watched several quarterbacks, including McNabb and Vick, put their stamp on the West Coast offense. He coached Brett Favre in Green Bay; Steve Young and Jeff Garcia in San Francisco; and Garcia, McNabb, Kolb, and Vick in Philadelphia.
Mornhinweg said there are "some great similarities to all of them," but added that "they're all much different." He said Favre is a "gunslinger type," Young was "more of a surgeon," and McNabb has both of those qualities.
And Vick? Mornhinweg, like Reid, wouldn't compare Vick to any of them.
"We haven't done anything yet," Mornhinweg said, "but he's off to a pretty good start. He's really gotten no ceiling on him here. He's 30. He should be right in the middle of his prime, really, as far as age, and he still has all the athleticism, and he's still got all of his strengths. He's throwing the ball maybe the best he's ever thrown it in his career. He's got great experience now, all different types of experiences both on and off the field. He's a very mature quarterback right now."