Too often we confuse the latest with the greatest, which is how great players like Elgin Baylor and Otto Graham and Stan Musial become almost completely forgotten in the rush to coronate the new phenom. So on the subject of the extraordinary Michael Vick and whether pro football has ever seen anything like him, it's nice to have some perspective from a couple of men who've seen every quarterback, either live or on film, for the last 50 years.
Art Modell is 77, but still the owner of the Baltimore Ravens, still watching tape of players, still attending his team's practices most days. I mentioned Vick's name, and Modell was off to the races, audibly thrilled to talk about somebody else's player. "Remember I'm from the old school," Modell said. "I've grown up in this league with the Rooneys and George Halas and Wellington Mara. I was born in 1925 and went to my first pro football game in 1934 when I was nine years old. If I remember correctly, the game was played at Ebbetts Field, between the old Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants. And it's great to revel in the past. But I've seen 'em all. All of 'em. But nobody in my recollection has the talent, the physical gifts, that Michael Vick has, not in any time frame."
Vick is the story in the NFL this week. If all he was doing was racking up gaudy rushing yardage with the greatest pair of feet the NFL has ever seen on a quarterback, he'd be curiosity enough. But after only 13 career starts, Vick has become one of the most efficient passers in the league (10 touchdowns to only three interceptions), has led the Atlanta Falcons on a 7-0-1 binge, and has been so electrifying in the process he's left the crustiest and most cynical men in football slack-jawed.
Steve Sabol, president of NFL Films and easily the most unbiased pro football historian, told the story yesterday about 30 or so staffers filing into his theater to watch any of the 13 monitors showing the league's games on Sunday. It's the ultimate NFL buffet, except the entire staff was ordering from one menu. They all watched Vick beat the Minnesota Vikings in overtime with one of the most outstanding performances in league history, topped off by a 46-yard, game-winning sprint through and around defenders.
"Not since Gale Sayers played in the 1960s," Sabol said, would NFL Films staffers so lobby to watch or cover just one game, just one player. "Everybody then wanted to go see Chicago because when you watched Sayers, you'd see something you'd never seen before. That's how it is to watch Michael Vick now. You'll see him create a moment of pure wonder, extemporaneous creativity. He's one of these guys you see play and you're immediately happy. He's not only a great player, he's the ultimate show."
This is possible, of course, because Vick has Troy Aikman's arm strength and Bo Jackson's speed. His 173 rushing yards shattered the modern rushing record for quarterbacks, and his 17.3 yards per carry average broke a 52-year-old record held by Cleveland Browns Hall of Famer Marion Motley. "And I think his running ability overshadows his passing ability," Sabol said.
So this begs the question: What other quarterback has had this much talent, or factoring in the evolution of football, had such diverse and overwhelming talents?
"Nobody," Modell said. "I'm hard-pressed to come up with somebody who can come close to Vick's elusiveness. Maybe a young Randall Cunningham, but he wasn't this fast. In some ways it's like a reoccurrence of Fran Tarkenton, but while Fran was elusive he was never as fast as Vick. I'm telling you, this kid is one of a kind."
So with Modell and Sabol, I played the name game.
What about John Unitas?
"John," Modell said, "was a great, great talent, maybe the greatest quarterback who ever lived. And it was masterful the way he moved a team. But speed and quickness? John was heavy-footed. It's like comparing a Mack truck to a motorcycle."
"He might be the only one," Modell said. "Great ability, best two-minute quarterback in years and years."
"What he was doing was so different at that time it just shocked and confused defenses," Sabol said. "But he didn't have the arm or the speed."
"His talent was in his leadership and his force of will," Sabol said. "But talent? No, not even close. He's light years beyond Staubach."
I reminded Modell that in Staubach we're talking about a great athlete who averaged 5.5 yards rushing over an entire career, who in 1971 as a third-year player carried 41 times for 343 yards (an average of 8.4 yards per carry). And Modell said of the notion of comparing his physical talents with Vick, "No way, just not in that category."
What about Tobin Rote, a 6-foot-2, 211-pound bruiser who led the NFL in touchdowns thrown in 1956 for the Packers and the same year rushed for 11 touchdowns? There was a silence from Modell, as if I had lost my mind. "No contest, none," he said.
So what about the great Redskin, Slingin' Sammy Baugh?
"He was an amazing player, a two-way player who also punted," Modell said. "He's one of the all-time greats, one of my real heroes in football, a very special player. But he had no foot speed to compare to Vick. Look, it's great to revel in the past. But it's one incredible thing, getting all of this talent Michael Vick has into one body."
Sabol draws an evolutionary line when it comes to quarterbacks whose feet were as good as their arms, maybe better than their arms initially. "You start with Otto Graham, a single-wing tailback at Northwestern who also played for the Rochester Royals in the NBA. Then you move to Tobin Rote, and then perhaps to Bobby Douglass, who were both kind of lumbering. Fran brought something previously unseen to the equation. Then you have to go to Randall Cunningham, then Steve Young, who had been the ultimate in that evolution . . . until Vick."
Vick is at the forefront of Sabol's thoughts because right now NFL Films is preparing a piece on Vick to run in about three weeks. "We're interviewing players who've played with and against him," Sabol said, "and the interviewer always starts out by saying, 'You might not believe this,' or 'I don't want to sound crazy, but . . .' It's always cautious. They don't want to sound nuts describing some pass or run they've never seen before, so they tone it down."
There is great irony in that Vick, 25 years ago, probably would have been turned into a defensive back by some coach who simply would not know how to fit his talents into what NFL teams traditionally thought a quarterback should do. Modell points out that Dan Reeves, who coached Elway, is therefore uniquely qualified to coach Vick. "You can waste that talent," Modell said, "by putting him in bad situations. The kid's fortunate to be playing for Dan Reeves. . . . Look, there's nobody yesterday or today that rivals Vick in terms of God-given talents. Speed is something you can't acquire. You can teach acceleration, you can teach change of direction. But this young man is something to behold."