It wasn’t supposed to happen so quickly for Mike Vick.
Playing behind one of the NFL’s all-time durable and tougher than leather QBs in Ben Roethlisberger was supposed to be an easy job. Part of his retirement package and further proof of his redemption song. Vick was supposed to hold a clip board, drop some sagacious words to the younginz' every now and then, do some PR work, tap Big Ben on the helmet when he makes a solid play and be ready in case the franchise QB has to miss a play or two.
He wasn’t suppose to hold the fate of Mike Tomlin’s Steelers in his hands and take the reins in game 3 with the responsibility of holding down the offense for another six weeks.
Then again, maybe fate brought two guys in Tomlin and Vick -- both from Newport News, Virginia and sharing a lengthy history -- together for a purpose.
Word has it that Tomlin wanted to bring Vick in when he was rebounding from his dog fighting fiasco, but Big Ben was already going through his drama and The Rooney’s weren’t having it. It made football sense, but the media circus surrounding the two events made it an impossible PR move.
As we often discover, the best laid plans of mice and men often get deterred by vicious, opportunistic cats with bad intentions. Late in the third quarter of Pittsburgh’s 12-6 win over the St. Louis Rams, Roethlisberger tried to step up in the pocket to avoid the rush and Rams safety Mark Barron dove low, creating a nasty bend in Roethlisberger's left leg. The two-time Super Bowl wining QB collapsed to the turf, writhing in pain and relinquished the football before clutching his left knee. Reports say Roethlisberger will be out at least 4-6 weeks with a sprained MCL and bone bruise.
Here we have a classic example of why planning ahead is necessary, but in an unpredictable world where NFL games are delayed by pyrotechnics gone awry (Fire extinguishers were needed to put out a small fire and the cleaning of the area delayed the start of the Rams-Steelers game) the lifespan of a player is play-by-play. NFL players will break your heart. You can't fall in love with them.
The pre-game fire was all the omen folks needed to know something foul was going to occur in that game.
The Steelers were already looking formidable this season. With the emphatic return of all-purpose attack back Le’Veon Bell from his two-game suspension; they were rounding into Super Bowl shape. Bell got right back into the groove rushing 19 times for 62 yards, plus a rushing TD (just Pittsburgh’s fifth running TD of the season) and snagging seven balls for 70 yards. His production is Fantasy League retarded. He had 26 touches with five going for at least double-digit yardage.
Then the worst case scenario occurred and the one indispensable piece went down. Now the O.G. Vick has to dust off his cleats, get in an attack mode and step it up. It can be a gift or a curse. No one wants to see a washed up Vick, fumbling away Pittsburgh's playoff hopes before Big Ben can return. However, Vick gets one last shot to shine on the big stage. What better a town than legendary Pittsburgh for Vick to have his final NFL rodeo?
He’s already a legend. He's run the gamut of unrivaled success and ultimate failure. At times in his life he’s been revered, idolized, awed, hated, pitied, cheered, loved, reviled, re-born.
Who can forget how Vick came out of da’ bean and was killing in Philly? He proved that he still had the legs and the football ability, but his QB acumen was also upgraded. He returned a more studied pro and polished pocket passer who grasped the nuances of the position better than he did when he was a loose cannon, revolutionizing the sport with the Atlanta Falcons and giving birth to today’s infatuation with dual-threat QBs and spread offenses.
The players will have faith in him because most of them grew up witnessing Vick’s modern day miracles on the gridiron.
“He’s a guy that a lot of us have grown up looking at,” Steelers tackle Ramon Foster told the Washington Post. “There was a few guys like that. A lot of guys had the shoes, his first signature shoe. A few guys said the first jersey they ever had was a Mike Vick jersey.”
Mike Vick reached an abyss at one point in his life, but unlike many athletes who make irreparable choices and regret them forever, when he looks back upon his journey, he will see that he’s been one lucky dog (no pun intended).
Vick is 35-years-old and already committed to retirement at the end of this season, but he has a rare opportunity to be “The Man” one last time. This opportunity doesn’t come in the form of mop up duty in game 16 as a gesture to a faded star.
Vick gets to navigate a multi-talented Steelers squad through a brutal stretch of games that include showdowns with Baltimore, Arizona, Kansas City, San Diego and Cincinnati.
Tomlin addressed the team in the locker room after the game. “If Ben is out,” he told them, “we got to bring him back to a good situation.”
With that statement he’s really spitting to his hometown partner and asking him to dig deep down and turn back the clock just a little bit for a few games.
Tomlin wants Vick to play with poise and use the wealth of experience Vick’s gained to manage the team to wins, utilize the weapons around him, be a leader, hold onto the ball and add another dimension.
Hopefully by then, Big Ben can ease back in with games against Oakland and Cleveland, before having to gear up for another brutal stretch that includes games against Seattle, Indianapolis, Cincy again, Denver and Baltimore.
Vick’s success in Roethlisberger’s absence is the key to the Steelers season right now. On Sunday, he completed 5 of 6 passes for 38 yards as the Steelers tried to milk the clock and win a grind-em-out, defensive-minded game.
He will get many opportunities to air it out, stick clutch third down throws and turn all of those animal rights-repping Steelers fans who protested his arrival into supporters. Same as he’s done since he came home and got back to work in 2009. The man didn’t get two $100 million contracts – one before prison and one after – for nothing.
He not only knew how to handle defenders on the field, but he heeded the advice of mentors and older heads that dropped jewels on him in the midst of his adversity and changed his public image to a large extent.
Vick has started only nine games since the start of 2013. His last impactful year as a starter was 2011 when he had a career-high 423 pass attempts.
However, last year, with the Jets, he appeared in 10 games, starting three. He showed an ability to still make throws and completed 52.9 percent of his passes while throwing three touchdowns and two interceptions. Vick has more explosive weapons with Pittsburgh and the incentive and motivation of having his last NFL chapter be his most magnificent yet. He might as well leave it all on the field and empty the tank for good.