Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick sat in front of his Heinz Stadium locker Sunday afternoon with a pumpkin-size bag of ice on his left shoulder. It had been bruised several times earlier in the day when Pittsburgh Steelers defenders managed to get their hands and burly bodies on him, not always an easy task when it comes to containing one of the fastest and most elusive quarterbacks in NFL history.
"Nah, I'm not that tired," Vick said with a wan smile after a crowd of reporters finally broke up around him. "I was more tired getting up this morning."
Just another day at the stadium, albeit one on which he rallied his team from a 17-point deficit with 121/2 minutes left in the fourth quarter and led it to an exhausting 34-34 overtime tie. Game days have always been like that for Vick, as a three-year starter at Warwick High in Newport News, Va., as a two-year all-American at Virginia Tech, and now as the Falcons quarterback.
Still, many NFL defenders and coaches insist Vick can't continue running the ball with the sort of abandon he has exhibited in his first full season as a starter since the Falcons made him the No. 1 overall choice in the 2001 draft. His body eventually will betray him, they say. No one can take that many collisions, that much pounding and survive.
So far this season, Vick has rushed for 414 yards on 58 carries with five touchdowns, second only among league quarterbacks to 230-pound Donovan McNabb of Philadelphia (63 carries, 460 yards, 7 touchdowns). Vick has the better passer rating (85.2 to 81.4), despite only five touchdown passes. Best of all, he has had only one interception in 205 attempts.
But how long can it last?
"He can't do it his whole career," said Steelers safety Lee Flowers. "I just don't think you can take that pounding. Your owner and your coaches, at some point they have to be smart and say, 'Look Vick, you can't do this every game.' If Atlanta loses Vick, they're not going anywhere. I think Steve Young put it best. He said he has the most raw talent ever. It's how he's going to use that when he gets older."
Vick is only 22. At 6 feet, 215 pounds, he is as chiseled as any quarterback who has played the sport. As such, he still has that air of invincibility often seen in many young athletes, at least until their first serious injury.
"A lot of the hits I take are not hard hits," Vick said. "I think my body is built for taking some hits. I run the ball because I have the ability to do it and my body is built for it. The hits are not hurting. It's not a problem."
Still, he also seems to know what sort of quarterback he'd prefer to become. His idol as a child was San Francisco's Young, the future Hall of Famer who also had to curb his enthusiasm for escaping the pocket and dashing downfield. In his most productive years, Young occasionally ran brilliantly, but only as a last resort -- living proof of the NFL adage that says there are old quarterbacks but not old, bold quarterbacks.
Young, a two-time league MVP and, like Vick, a left-handed passer, visited the Falcons' training camp in July, and spent time with Vick, showing him how to prepare and what he looked for when watching game tape.
"To me, going through this transition from playmaker to offensive orchestrator, that's the transition you have to have in your mind," Young said. "In the NFL, you can't make enough plays alone, with the ball in your hands, to go the distance. It's a process, and it's kind of weakly linked to 'Do I make plays or stay in the pocket?' You have the mind-set to still make plays, but you still want to orchestrate the process."
When he left camp, Young said he thought that Vick had a sense of history and that eventually he would adjust his style to the game -- and the Falcons. He has led them to a 5-3-1 mark; the Falcons play New Orleans (7-2) on Sunday. New Orleans and Tampa Bay are tied for the NFC South lead, which makes the game crucial for Atlanta's playoff prospects.
"One of my goals is to become one of the best pocket passers in the league," Vick said. "I think in the next couple of years, I'll enter that stage."
This year, he almost has been forced to be a do-it-all guy. His receivers are average at best, and dropped at least four passes Sunday against the Steelers. Running back Warrick Dunn has only 11 more rushing yards than Vick, despite having 56 more carries. The offensive line is nothing special, evidenced by the fact that Vick has been sacked 20 times in nine games despite his maneuverability.
His linemen admit they have no idea where he's going to be on any given play, making it imperative for them to stay on their blocks and never give up until they hear a whistle.
"You don't know what he's going to do," said veteran Falcons tackle Bob Whitfield, who still hadn't summoned up enough energy to take a shower 45 minutes after the final gun Sunday. "You've always got to be moving, you've got to be agile because if he goes somewhere, you've got to go, too. He's always extending the play. You think it's over in a couple of seconds, but with him, it seems like seconds turn into minutes."
Whitfield, an 11-year veteran, says that Vick has matured.
"I think his mental approach to everything is a lot better," he said. "He's coming in early and staying late. He knows what it takes, and he knows what he needs to do. He doesn't get vocal in the huddle. He's still very soft spoken, but there's no question who's in charge. This guy just gets the ball in his hands and he creates magic. When we were down [17 points], all he said in the huddle was 'We're gonna score here and if we do we're right back in it.' "
Veteran Falcons cornerback Ray Buchanan sees Vick from the sideline on Sundays but has to defend his passes every day in practice.
"That dude creates stuff you've never seen, and I've seen a lot," he said. "I started believing in this guy about the first time I saw him. Now everybody else is seeing what we've seen for two years. He really wears out defenses. You have to chase him so much, after a while guys are saying, 'Someone else go chase him.'
"Every game he gets better, and he will only get better. The man just makes plays. He'll run away from a sack, then throw off his back foot and still drill it in there. He may call a play, but it changes in a hurry once he starts moving. You know how when you turn on the light, all the cockroaches start scrambling around? That's what our offense is like."
The last two weeks, both the Ravens and the Steelers did a decent job against Vick with a 3-4 defense, often using a "spy" linebacker to shadow him, while also mixing in a variety of blitzes.
"Last week, I learned a lot from what Baltimore did," Vick said. "I used some of that against Pittsburgh. I feel like anything they throw at me, I can handle. People can't be using that [3-4] all year. You can only contain us for so long, but trust me, we'll find a way. We will find a way."