FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. - Michael Vick's goal is the same at the start of every training camp: he will run less, throw more and give the Atlanta Falcons a balanced attack.
Sounds simple, but even coach Jim Mora acknowledges the thrill of watching his star quarterback spin past opponents and break tackles on his way to another huge run.
"It's like going to watch Michael Jordan," Mora says. "You didn't want to see Michael Jordan get 13 assists. You wanted to see Jordan put 50 on somebody. It's kind of the same thing."
Drawing comparisons to a young Jordan, though, holds little weight as Vick enters his fifth year. When his time ends, Vick knows Pro Bowl selections, NFL records and a $130 million contract will be meaningless if he doesn't stay healthy and lead the Falcons to the Super Bowl.
Losing the NFC title game in frigid Philadelphia last January taught Vick the hardest lesson of all.
"What did I learn? Win more football games at home so we can have home-field advantage, so we won't have to play in Philly because of the weather factor," he said.
The No. 1 overall draft choice in 2001, Vick scrambles and improvises like no quarterback before him. He fueled Atlanta's rushing attack in 2002 and 2004, his two full seasons as a starter.
In their first season under coordinator Greg Knapp , the Falcons led the league in rushing for the first time. They blew out St. Louis in a second-round playoff game as Vick set an NFL single-game postseason record for rushing by a quarterback.
He had 118 yards on the ground and completed 12 of 16 passes for four touchdowns, but far from the Georgia Dome one week later, the Eagles froze Atlanta solid. Vick ran four times for 26 yards and he completed just 11 of 24 passes for 136 yards, no touchdowns and one interception.
His most forgettable play in the minus-5 degree wind chill was a third-quarter interception of a pass intended for tight end Alge Crumpler. Vick sat motionless in the middle on the field as Brian Dawkins picked him off and ran 19 yards to the Atlanta 11, setting up a field goal that gave the Eagles a 20-10 lead.
"I was over that the next day," Vick said. "I just told myself the best thing about it is that there is always next year. We'll have the opportunity. It was just written for Philly to go the Super Bowl, and they had their shot. I just wanted to get my mind away and focus on 2005."
Knapp points out that Vick's completion percentage was a career-best 56.4 last year, but the improvement was incremental for a gunslinger who has just one 300-yard game in 36 career starts.
"What you have to realize is that he excelled in other areas," Knapp said. "He was second in the league with an 8.77 yards per attempt in the fourth quarter. When we rolled him out of the pocket to either side, his percentages went up dramatically. So that tells me that, No. 1, we have to do a better job as a coaching staff to get him in motion, and No. 2, we have to help him succeed as a pocket passer."
Few doubt Vick's arm strength, but his accuracy remains a problem.
Strong defensive teams like Philadelphia and Tampa Bay proved again that speed-rushing ends a few extra steps upfield would cause the top of the pocket to collapse when linebackers like Jeremiah Trotter and Derrick Brooks seal off Vick's escape lanes.
The Falcons believe they can beat those schemes by sending first-round draft picks Michael Jenkins and Roddy White on deeper routes. Jenkins caught just seven passes in his first season, and White is a rookie, but their speed and size fit Vick's talent better than Peerless Price, Dez White and Brian Finneran.
Crumpler, a two-time Pro Bowl selection, gives him a weapon in the middle of the field.
Distributing the ball also can help Vick avoid sacks - he went down once every 12.5 pass attempts, worst in the league.
Still, since Vick took over the offense in 2002 the Falcons are 24-13-1 when he started and 3-11 when injuries kept him out. In the only start he missed last year, backup Matt Schaub completed just 17 of 41 passes for 188 yards and two interceptions in a 13-point loss at New Orleans.
Owner Arthur Blank hardly regrets the team's financial commitment to Vick. The front office doesn't like embarrassing episodes like the sexual misconduct civil suit filed by a woman against Vick in April, but the trappings of celebrity offer no guarantees.
"Many situations are out of his control," Blank said. "We want all our players to conduct themselves as professionally off the field as they do on the field, but Mike sometimes has a bull's-eye on his back that makes people lose perspective."
Added Vick, "Things happen. I just have to move on. It's something that I am definitely not worried about. So I will leave it at that."
Right now, he knows the Falcons can reach a Super Bowl if he masters the command that his idol, former San Francisco left-handed scrambler Steve Young, parlayed into a Hall of Fame career.
"It's a fine balance," Vick said. "At the same time, it makes my job a lot easier to just throw the football than wear myself out running."
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