With rookies and selected veterans set to report to Lehigh University in 12 days, we are gearing up for the 2012 football season by examining the three most difficult questions facing the Eagles. Yesterday we asked whether Michael Vick can stay healthy. Next up, can he cut down on turnovers?
When last season ended, there was quite a lively debate as to what cost the Eagles most in 2011: defense or turnovers. Juan Castillo's unit took a lot of the heat, even though some compelling research indicated offense and special teams coughing up the ball so often put his D at a distinct disadvantage -- not to mention still fared better than league average under the circumstances.
We're not here to rehash old stories, but there is no doubt turnovers are highly predictive of success in the NFL. Teams that won the turnover battle during the regular season came away with the W 78.5% of the time, and it's no coincidence 10 out of 12 post-season entrants ranked in the top half of 32 in ball security. It was awfully telling when the Birds finished the year with only three fewer turnovers than the Patriots, Packers, and 49ers combined, all of whom wound up with 13 or more wins.
Of course, this was a huge departure from 2010, when Michael Vick amazingly went a sizable portion of the season without turning the ball over at all. En route to a career year, Vick spread six interceptions and three fumbles lost over 12 games. It was a rebirth the likes of which is rarely seen in an often unforgiving sport, especially for an athlete trying to make a living under center.
Yet somehow, one year later the Eagles committed the second-most turnovers overall, and just as quickly Vick has fallen out of favor, his performance once again the subject of fierce scrutiny. It all happened so fast, you have to wonder what was the cause. Which Vick was for real?
For starters, Vick is taking far too much of the blame for 38 turnovers in 2011, of which less than half actually belong to him. That's correct. Vick was responsible for 14 interceptions and four fumbles lost last season, and while those aren't exactly stellar totals for 13 games, they are at least reasonable.
Of the additional 20, nine were fumbles on offense or special teams that can't be traced to Vick at all -- the rest of the gang needs to tighten up as well. The remaining 11 were interceptions tossed by either Mike Kafka or Vince Young, the latter managing to hurl nine. Part of the issue was eliminated when Young was allowed to leave during free agency, though it speaks again to the broader problem of Vick's recent injuries pressing backups into such a key role. Still, Vick was not directly responsible.
Even a few of the 18 turnovers credited to Vick weren't his fault in the slightest. Two of his picks were catchable balls that hit their intended receivers in the hands, only to be batted into the air for waiting defenders. You can't flag the quarterback on those. Also, one of his fumbles was the result of a hand-off that was disrupted by a defender in the backfield -- Vick's back was turned to an unblocked, 300-lbs. lineman who made the hit before the exchange was complete. Nothing he could do.
And while you want to be careful not to absolve the quarterback of too much, there were at least extenuating circumstances in multiple other instances. Whether heavy pressure forced an errant pass, an official blew the call on the field, or simply a tremendous effort for the defense's part to get their hands on the ball, there were times when the bounces just happened to tilt the other way.
Which, all things being equal, is not so dissimilar to 2010, only in the opposite sense. Although Vick committed an exceptionally low number of turnovers, there were numerous opportunities the other side failed to convert.
The real Vick probably lies somewhere in between '10 and '11. Due to his freestyling, he's never going to protect the ball quite the way a prototypical pocket passer is expected. However, the idea that he is reckless isn't entirely accurate, either.
Vick ranks 18th in career interception percentage among active quarterbacks, throwing a pick 2.8% of the time he attempts a pass, which puts him ahead of two-time Super Bowl-winning QBs Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning. Drew Brees and Peyton Manning are only a tenth of a percentage point better than Vick, so it's fair to say he's not exactly a gun slinger -- in fact, quite the opposite. Because he can create plays with his feet, Vick has the tendency not to force the ball as much, opting to make things happen for himself.
The downside is because he scrambles and holds on to the ball too long, Vick is routinely among the league leaders in fumbles. He finished first overall at putting the ball on the carpet for Atlanta in '04, and again in '10 with the Eagles.
Fortunately, the number of loose balls that actually wind up in the hands of a defensive player has not been very high. Vick didn't finish in the top 10 in lost fumbles in either of the past two seasons, and while randomness is certainly a factor here, Vick or his teammates actually have recovered 42 of the 76 fumbles during his career. He can cut down on some of those by becoming a more decisive passer, but the fact is fumbles are part of the equation with any mobile quarterback, and clearly not necessarily a killer.
While history might be on his side, there is no getting away from the fact that regardless of exactly how many were his fault, Vick can improve his ball security, and arguably needs to if he's to take the next step. If you need an example of how that can happen, look no further than inside the NFC East.
While Vick was having a resurgent season in 2010, Eli Manning was having one of his worst. Eli threw 31 picks and lost five fumbles, the Giants led the league in turnovers, and they finished out of the postseason altogether. Last year, he cleaned up his act some, reducing his own turnovers by 15, and the team regressed to the middle of the pack. New York sneaks into the playoffs, and you know the rest.
Lesson learned. No matter who is under center, turnovers can fluctuate from one season to the next. Vick doesn't need to completely reinvent himself, he needs to focus on taking better care of the ball. The evidence suggests he already knows how.