Chapter umpteen of the Michael Vick saga finds our enigmatic protagonist escaping career limbo yet again.
Just as Vick's career in Philadelphia appeared to be finished, due to a contract that owed him over $15-million in 2013, a fumble-and-injury marred 2012 season, and the arrival of new head coach Chip Kelly, Vick signed a one-year contract with the Eagles on Monday. Originally reported as being worth "up to $10 million," the deal is worth closer to $7 million, with the rest in incentives. Despite the traditional "agent math" padding, it's good compensation for a player who lost his starting job last year; Vick has once again escaped danger and scrambled toward financial safety.
The shorthand of this story – Eagles re-sign Vick for $7 million – hides many subtleties, and it's the kind of news that can be misinterpreted. A quick scan of my Facebook reveals that many Eagles fans assume that the deal means that Vick is the team's undisputed starting quarterback and will be running Kelly's read-option offense for the foreseeable future. (Or, as it reads in some status updates, WHEN WILL THIS WAKING NIGHTMARE END?) It's more likely that Vick was re-signed as a placeholder starter until a youngster (possibly Nick Foles, but more likely a Kelly-selected draft choice) is ready to take over.
To understand why, let's unpack a few facts about the Eagles, Vick, Kelly's offense and the realities of selecting quarterbacks in the NFL.
1. The Eagles need a veteran quarterback on the roster. Foles will certainly get a long look from Kelly, and the new coach is also likely to draft a quarterback who is a better system fit than the slow-footed Foles. With two young quarterbacks on the roster, a team must have a veteran available who can be ready to play given limited practice reps. That is why professional backups like David Carr have long careers, and why teams rarely draft multiple rookie quarterbacks just to see who develops. Meaningful practice reps are precious, and both Foles and the rookie will need as many as possible.
In addition to providing some degree of mentorship (don't snicker; Vick has been a good citizen for several years and does have a wealth of experience), Vick is capable of getting limited work in practice and training camp, then still taking the field relatively prepared. If the Eagles did not re-sign Vick, they would have to seek another veteran on the open market, and it is a very weak field. We are talking Tarvaris Jackson or Seneca Wallace, assuming Kelly wants someone who can scramble a little.
Vick must learn Kelly's playbook, of course. But so must anyone else the Eagles acquire who could be considered a viable veteran presence (in other words, someone other than former Ducks quarterback and reclamation project Dennis Dixon). Vick now has a month's head start on any free agent acquisition the Eagles may have sought, making it all the more likely that he can get ready with limited reps.
2. The Eagles were in strong cap shape before the restructuring. The Eagles were about $5 million under the cap before restructuring Vick's deal. They also had about $20 million in unused 2012 cap space available for rollover. That gave the Eagles flexibility in dealing with Vick; for example, it allowed them to buy time a week ago by paying him a $3 million roster bonus. Even if the Vick works his way through enough incentives to earn something close to the full $10 million, it provides relief against his expected cap figure of about $16 million. No matter what it's real worth, the new deal erases Vick from the ledger for 2014 and into the future. The Eagles have enough wiggle room to spend some money now in the name of long-term savings.
Seen that way, the new contract is incredibly friendly to the Eagles. It is also rebuilding-conscious. Taking Vick off the books for the future opens space for Geno Smith, Ryan Nassib or E.J. Manuel. This contract looks more like a short-term arrangement of convenience than any vote of confidence in Vick as a starter.
3. Albatross quarterback contracts are everywhere in the NFL. Before the restructuring, teams like the Bills were considered potential employers for Vick. But the Bills have a quarterback contract of their own to worry about. Ryan Fitzpatrick signed a reported six-year, $60 million horse pill at the tail end of a 2011 hot streak, so the Bills were in the same boat as the Eagles, paying big bucks for a quarterback who offers diminishing returns.
The Jets were also reported Vick suitors. They need a quarterback, offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg coached Vick in Philly, and the Jets are the Jets and like to do splashy-risky things. But the Jets are in terrible cap shape, and Mark Sanchez will cost the team about $12-million in cap space this year, even more if cut.
Vick's contract was one of several albatross deals that teams hung around their own necks in the last few years. It is fun to speculate that everyone will cut their overpriced quarterbacks, hold a free agency square dance and find new partners, but there are practical reasons why successful franchises don't do this, starting with the dead cap space that results from cutting a player too early in a long-term deal.*
*The other fun offseason pipe dream is that everyone will snooker everyone else out of draft choices in exchange for overpriced veterans. This rarely happens, though Eagles fans can be forgiven for believing its possible after the team got high-round picks in exchange for Kevin Kolb, Donovan McNabb and -- utterly inexplicably -- A.J. Feeley in the last decade.
The Eagles knew that acquiring someone like Alex Smith as a veteran mentor would be about as expensive as paying Vick, and would require a longer commitment. Vick's people realized that the employment market currently consists of 1) teams who spent too much on middle-tier quarterbacks recently and 2) teams that learned from the mistakes of the teams in Category 1. Both sides avoided the open market, where the Eagles would have to offer more long-term money and Vick would still be looking at incentive-laden deals.
4. Michael Vick is not a "good fit" in Chip Kelly's offense, and both Michael Vick and Chip Kelly know it. This final point has become a source of confusion, because Vick runs fast, Kelly's Oregon offense was full of options and designed runs, and the 49ers, Seahawks and Redskins reached the playoffs with the help of option-flavored offenses. There's a prevailing belief that Kelly is going to have Vick faking handoffs and running eight or nine times per game. That will not happen, because everyone involved knows it would be disastrous.
Vick has not executed an option offense since he was at Virginia Tech in 2000. That offense was very different than Kelly's: Vick often ran the option from an I-formation, to cite one obvious difference. The "zone read" play was just becoming popular during Vick's college career, Rich Rodriguez had not yet brought the spread-option concept to West Virginia and Urban Meyer was a position coach for Notre Dame. Option tactics have evolved in the last 13 years, and Kelly's Oregon offense represented the state of the art at the NCAA level. How much of that offense he plans to import to the NFL is not quite clear. If the successes the 49ers, Seahawks and Redskins enjoyed (with very different option concepts) are any indication, Kelly will have to install a complex, multiple-formation-and-variation package very different from anything Vick ran with the Hokies if he plans to use option tactics in the NFL.
Vick, meanwhile, has spent his whole NFL career working in conventional NFL offenses. With the exception of some half-hearted Wildcat experiments with the Eagles, he has not done anything option-like – reading the defensive end, making the run-handoff-pass decision post-snap -- since the Bill Clinton administration. Saying that Vick fits an option system is like saying Tony Romo or Jay Cutler fits an option system: Romo and Cutler both run well, and like Vick, neither has any meaningful professional experience in such a system.
Vick has had multiple injuries over the last three years, including concussions. He will be 33 years old when he takes the field in September, and he weighs 215 pounds. It's ludicrous to think that he can handle a 120-carry rushing load (Robert Griffin's 2012 workload, which was close to what Vick did on scrambles and bootlegs in his Falcons days) or the 8-14 carries per game Marcus Mariota earned at quarterback from Kelly last year. Such expectations will lead to the injured reserve by Week Six, and both the Eagles and Kelly realize this.
Vick is not an ideal fit. He is a viable stopgap whose running ability can threaten the defense, even when an apparent read-option is not an option at all, just a handoff. Kelly's ideal fit will be a youngster familiar with modern option concepts, someone who can develop as the coach adapts his system adapts to the NFL. If that youngster is not ready in September, Vick will do.
The longer we look at the Vick re-signing, the more it looks like a rental, especially now that three million bucks have already been shaved off the initially reported figure. The Eagles will still pursue a quarterback in the draft, possibly with the fourth overall pick. That quarterback, or Foles, will probably start games in 2013, if not the first game. Vick will almost certainly hit the open market in 2014, where he may find more suitors if he gets good grades as a mentor and plays well in a few starts.
Knowing Vick, he will parlay this season into another starting gig. No one runs to daylight quite like he does. As this restructuring proves, he has also finally learned that the best way to avoid danger is to hang in the pocket a little longer.