When a lineman gets hurt, it's an occasion to pause the game briefly for a Budweiser commercial. Michael Vick's Injury of the Week, by contrast, attunes fans and journalists to life's big questions: What constitutes fair punishment? Does karma exist? If enraged Eagles fans squash backup quarterback Mike Kafka like a bug, would that be tragic, dramatic, or historical irony?
Vick came into Sunday's game against the Giants riding one NFL hobby horse and got smashed into another. A week ago, the Eagles quarterback got a concussion after slamming his head into a teammate. Vick returned this week and played … a little woozily. Maybe it makes sense for announcers to shut up rather than play doctors on TV. But if the talking heads are going to say something, they shouldn't be afraid to say concussion.
Our friend Stefan Fatsis relates the following conversation in the Fox studio after the Giants-Eagles game.
Howie Long: "[Vick] wasn't right today."
Curt Menefee: "Yeah, he wasn't."
Long: "It just didn't seem like he was 100 [percent]. Something was off."
Whether or not he was being intentionally evasive, Long didn't bother to indicate what that something might have been. Perhaps Vick was sad because his truck wasn't masculine enough.
But that's last week's news. Today, we're talking about the meaning of Vick's bruised right hand. (Speaking of the wisdom of instant medical analysis, on Sunday everyone thought his hand was broken.) From the quarterback's perspective, his injured mitt—seemingly broken by the Giants' Chris Canty on a third-quarter, post-throw hit—is a symbol of the league's unwillingness to protect him. "Looking at the replays, I'm on the ground every time, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't frustrated," Vick said in his post-game press conference. "The refs have got to do their jobs. … Every time I throw the ball, I'm on the ground. And I don't know why I don't get the 15-yard flags like everybody else does."
This sort of pleading is an inevitable consequence of the league's emphasis on protecting quarterbacks. Unnecessary roughness penalties aren't just a deterrent to overzealous defenders—if you're on the other side of the ball, 15 yards and an automatic first down is an enticing carrot. I'm not saying that Vick wants to get hit, but the NFL creates a perverse incentive when it rewards quarterbacks for getting speared and defenseless receivers for getting decleated.
The conventional wisdom, as voiced by Eagles coach Andy Reid, is that NFL refs don't know how to deal with Vick, since he's always a threat to run. I don't think that's right. Vick gets knocked around because he lingers in the pocket.
Every quarterback is supposed to have a clock in his head—after a certain number of ticks, it's time to get rid of the ball. Like Ben Roethlisberger, Vick's clock runs slowly. Both quarterbacks create big plays by holding onto the ball for a couple of extra beats, sucking in linebackers and safeties and allowing their receivers to get open down the field. Along with those potential rewards comes a heightened risk that a defensive end will crush you. As opposed to Roethlisberger, Vick doesn't have the enormous, doughy frame to withstand those blows. (I'm not sure Roethlisberger's head and hand would've stood up any better than Vick's have, but the point stands in general. Defensive linemen bounce off Roethlisberger. They tear through Vick.)
Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Drew Brees have a different risk-reward calculus. All three quarterbacks do whatever they can—step up in the pocket, dump the ball off to a back, chuck it out of bounds—to avoid getting hit. These self-preservationist impulses can't ensure their safety, but it does mean that Manning, Brady, and Brees don't take as many hits as their peers: In 2010, the Colts, Patriots, and Saints all ranked in the top five in the NFL in fewest opponents' sacks. What's the risk for pressure-dodging quarterbacks? The get-it-out-of-there-at-all-costs Brees threw 22 interceptions in 2010. Vick threw six. So long as you don't get killed, eating the ball isn't a bad strategy. Except you're eventually going to get killed.
Brady was the NFL's best quarterback in 2010 because he somehow managed to avoid both getting hit and getting intercepted. On Sunday against the Bills, though, Brady matched his total from last year by getting picked off four times. Buffalo came back from 21-0 down to beat the Patriots and move its record to 3-0. After watching the NFL Films documentary on Bill Belichick over the weekend—highly recommended, by the way—I'm wondering what motivational material the coach will pull out to inspire his team for next week's game against the Raiders. Perhaps, as in the documentary, he'll walk them through how Sun Tzu came to write The Art of War. "You've got a lot of shit there in China," Belichick began, and as the players laughed, I got the sense that football genius and the regular kind of genius aren't quite the same thing.