By Lori Shontz

Of the Post-Dispatch

Michael Vick was injured while playing in an exhibition game a year ago and missed most of the season.
(John Amis/AP)

His biggest adjustment to the Atlanta Falcons' new offensive scheme? Michael Vick didn't have to agonize over that answer.

"Waking up every morning and coming to the building to study the offense," he said.

You see, Vick normally awakens at 8 a.m. But to be walking in the door to the practice facility at 7, Vick must wake up at 6:15.

"That's a big difference," he said.

"Other than that, it's just football," Vick added. "You've got to learn to execute the plays and do what the coach is asking for. There was really nothing tough about it."

Yet for all Vick's blase attitude, his transition to the new scheme - commonly labeled as the West Coast offense - made the preseason a stressful one for Falcons fans.

First, of course, came the worry that Vick would be injured. That was a leftover from the previous season, when a broken fibula in an exhibition game knocked him out for all but four games of the regular season.

So Vick played sparingly during this preseason, sparking worries that he wasn't yet comfortable in the new offense. Plus, a hamstring injury kept him out of the Falcons' third exhibition game. Vick completed only five passes during the preseason.

"I knew there was really no way I was going to win that one ... no matter what I did," said Jim Mora Jr., who took over as head coach when Dan Reeves was fired after last season. "I just couldn't wait for the regular season to get here so it would all go away."

And that's just about what happened.

The Falcons beat San Francisco in their opener and Vick played well, completing 13 of 22 passes for 163 yards, one touchdown and one interception.

"Fortunately he went out in the first half and had a nice first half the other day, and I think that put a lot of people here at ease in terms of him being ready to play in this offense," said Mora, who insists that calling the Falcons' scheme the West Coast offense is not technically correct.

To some who watched - including Rams defensive lineman Tyoka Jackson, who is preparing for Sunday's game in the Georgia Dome - that game showed that Vick is moving toward yet another level.

"I see a progression," Jackson said. "I see a guy who's trying to be a quarterback, who's seeing the passes he needs to make. And then when a play breaks down ... you see the same old Michael Vick."

To think of another level is saying a lot about Vick, who, as the Falcons' media guide puts it, possesses "rare athletic abilities not before seen at the quarterback position in the history of the NFL." But Mora is confident that Vick will prosper in a system that is based on the short passing game but has been tweaked to allow for rollouts and the best use of Vick's running skills.

And no, Mora insisted, he doesn't want Vick to run less.

"I love when he runs. I think it presents a huge challenge to defenses," Mora said. "All we're encouraging Mike to do is make good decisions when he is running. That means (the decisions include) 'When do I run, and stay here at the line of scrimmage and throw it away if there's nothing there down field?' 'When do I turn it up and get out of bounds?' 'When do I slide?' We don't want him to feel like he has to take it to the house every time he runs or absorb vicious hits. That's not what he needs to do, but we certainly want him to run."

Jackson - who loves to watch Vick play, as long as Vick isn't playing against his team - said that from the first time he saw Vick, as a sophomore at Virginia Tech, he thought he was watching "a revolution."

"No one ever had the tools to play quarterback like that before," he said.

Actually, Jackson said upon reflection, that's not exactly true. He believes some black athletes who had those skills were directed toward other positions - running back, wide receiver, anywhere else.

"Then there were white quarterbacks who ran, Fran Tarkenton, Joe Montana, Steve Young, and then people started to realize how big a threat that could be. Now they're looking for quarterbacks who are able to do that."

For his part, Vick knows that such quarterbacks, especially Montana and Young, have paved his way.

"It shows that mobile quarterbacks do have success in the West Coast system," he said. "It does allow you get out of the pocket and use your legs and run for first downs and pick up yards on the ground as a quarterback."

The fact remains that as Vick goes, so go the Falcons.

Two seasons ago, when Vick came of age as a quarterback by passing for 2,936 yards and 16 touchdowns and running for 777 yards and eight touchdowns, the Falcons qualified for the playoffs. They beat Green Bay in a wild-card game, becoming the first opponent to win at Lambeau Field in the postseason.

Last season, without Vick, the Falcons played so badly in a 36-0 loss to the Rams on a Monday night that the team's owner Arthur Blank took out newspaper ads apologizing for the team's performance. Vick returned for the season's final four games and guided the Falcons to a 3- 1 finish.

Given the team's success with Vick as a running quarterback, it no wonder fans are nervous. But like Mora, Vick thought the San Francisco game answered some questions.

"After what everybody was saying, I think I did a pretty good job," he said. "I don't worry about what people say, (just) go out and do my job and take care of my business, so to speak. To evaluate my performance, I think I did a really good job, but I know there's room for improvement."

Reporter Lori Shontz
Phone: 314-340-8205