Re-Vick-olution: How Michael Vick changed the modern offense

By John Harris
June 24, 2014

Can you pinpoint the modern football offense to one man, let alone one game? John Harris might be able to do just that.

The way I saw it, he wasn't bragging.

"I was the guy who started it all. I revolutionized the game. I changed the way it was played in the NFL."

I was a bit dismayed when I saw Michael Vick's comments about himself and his place in football history. I always wanted to be the one to say it. "Vick's Presence Changed the Game" was the name of one of the key chapters in the book I planned to finish writing one day. Perhaps envious as opposed to dismayed, I've often wondered whether Vick was the genesis of the modern offense in football. Even before his comments last week, I've thought that if he wasn't THE reason, he sure played a leading role. Consequently, every time I think back to the evolution of the quarterback position at all levels of football, I harken back to one man in one game on one night.

Sugar Bowl - 2000

Can it honestly be traced back to only one man and one game? Vick in the 2000 Sugar Bowl against Florida State? He didn't do it alone but he was the focal point at the intersection of a three-to-four year period in which teams at all levels looked to maximize the pressure an offense could put on a defense. Vick was the ultimate weapon, even if the sweet irony was that Virginia Tech didn't really utilize him in that capacity.

Was Vick a revolutionary, football playing savant that changed the game?

To me, he was. He was my inspiration. But to fully understand why, I need to give you a history lesson.

When I took over as the head coach at Episcopal High School in Jacksonville, Florida in 1998, I knew I needed an equalizer. We weren't blessed with Pop Warner all-stars ready-made for college-level downs. I had a smart group and guys that played really hard, but I knew I couldn't just get in the 'I' Formation and hammer teams with power. How could I maximize all six "skill" players on the field? In particular, the quarterback position?

I littered napkins, desk calendars and notebooks with Xs and Os scribble, aiming to find any advantage I could. Eventually, I circled the quarterback as a running option. I grew up as a coach's son, and the first offense I can ever remember my dad running was the wishbone triple option. (I was an option guy and still am to this day.) I wasn't completely sure the wishbone was the answer, though.

Although I eschewed the wishbone, I drew up quarterback runs out of shotgun, under center... You name it, I came up with it. I wasn't completely sure if any of it had staying power, but I did know the high-school coaching levels in northeast Florida weren't good enough to stop a diverse offense, especially one in which it had to account for the quarterback.

Was it possible to truly dominate, without running the option, 100% of the time, with a mobile, dual-threat quarterback?

The Forebearers

The good news was that there were some college programs a step ahead of me

  • In 1998, Kansas State was the first to do it on a national scale. They incorporated the true zone read for Heisman Trophy finalist Michael Bishop.
  • Rich Rodriguez was the offensive coordinator at Tulane running the Green Wave to a 12-0 record with his version of the spread offense.
  • Purdue wasn't running the quarterback, but Joe Tiller's gang confirmed that the field was 53-yards wide and the Boilermakers were willing to use every single inch of it to gain an edge.
  • Kevin Wilson and Northwestern were on the verge of setting nearly every single Northwestern offensive record with their spread, up-tempo attack.
  • Oklahoma took Mike Leach's Air Raid concepts and expanded upon them leading to a national championship in 2000.

I stole Kansas State's zone read, hijacked some running concepts out of the gun from Rodriguez, and the midline option from Texas high school coaches. We ran the fool out of it from that point on, but I didn't buy in fully until the night of the Sugar Bowl in 2000.

Vick was a redshirt freshman for the Hokies, the No. 2 team in the country. He led Virginia Tech to an 11-0 spotless record and a winner-take-all BCS championship game matchup against Florida State. The Seminoles were loaded on defense with a myriad of future first round picks and NFL talent, but what the Seminoles possessed more than anything other team in the country was...


Defensively, they flew to the football. Every single one of them. From DT Corey Simon to LB Tommy Polley to the secondary, they beat teams with pure, nasty speed. I saw it up close and personal in the last game of the 1999 season as FSU faced hated Florida in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium aka The Swamp. Many remember it as the Peter Warrick/Dillards game, but it was state of Florida football at its best with speed oozing from everywhere. The University of Florida kept it close with some speed of its own, but in the end, the '99 Seminoles were just on a different level. They held the Gators to 23 points and really controlled the game throughout. I was convinced that Florida State was going to run Vick and company right out of the SuperDome.

They didn't.

The Seminoles did take the glass trophy home to Tally that night, but there wasn't one set of eyes on that game that didn't think some seismic shift had been felt. Not coincidentally, Iit happened when No. 7 had the ball in his hands.

First drive of the game, out of a traditional 'I' Formation, Vick dropped to pass after a play-action fake. With both FSU DE taking their normal high, wide path to the QB, one of them got an arm on Vick. He brushed it off, slid up in the pocket and then took off.

Like a shot out of a cannon, the yardlines never moved so fast on a screen. I never saw FSU defenders ever left chasing...and losing. That was strange. Twenty-four yards and a first down.

Next play, Vick dropped to pass, couldn't find anyone open. He was hemmed in. Then he wasn't. He went left. He didn't like it. He went right. Finally, after playing a game of human Frogger with FSU's front seven, he sprinted forward ten yards for another VT first down. Okay, who does this to FSU, I thought. It's just a couple of plays, it'll stop.

Second drive, 3rd and 17, he gets rushed again by one of the FSU jet DE, he slides underneath, avoids the hand and throws a dart on the money to Andre Davis for a first down. How can they not catch him? That's Florida State!

On and on it went as Vick willed his Hokies to a 29-28 lead early in the fourth quarter. Unfortunately, Peter Warrick wasn't going quietly in the night, not to mention the fact that Florida State was just too good offensively to be stopped. The Seminoles won the game, but Vick dominated the headlines. He did what no one had ever done to Florida State, at least, not that I could remember and I saw that team plenty through its legendary run in the 1990s.

He ran away from them all night long. They chased and chased but never caught him. He ran when he wanted, for as long as he wanted. No one did that, not to Florida State. And, I mean NO ONE.

The Vick Effect

Immediately following the game, a million thoughts came to mind. What if my quarterback could do that? What if he could throw it that well, too? You could change the game. My creative juices ran wild. A quarterback could do more than impact the game from that position, he could change it. What Vick did more than anything else was put the entire defense on alert for a full 60 minutes. I wanted that quarterback. I wanted a Michael Vick. Now, it's like wanting a Lamborghini for Christmas on a private school teacher's budget, but I wanted one nonetheless.

I was fortunate enough to have my version of Vick the following season. I ran him in every way possible. Designed QB runs out of shotgun. Triple option. Midline option. Zone read. You name it, I ran it. Vick was my muse and always would be. Had I stayed in coaching I would've gone looking for another one after him. Why?

Defensive coaches hated it. They still do. Ask any defensive coach at any level whether he'd want to face a gunslinger who can't move or a Vick-like athlete. Peyton Manning or Colin Kaepernick? Not surprisingly, those DCs want no part of the Vick types. Nothing. How do you catch greased lightning? How do you contain the un-containable? Vick's presence put so much pressure on defenses even if he wasn't the most polished passer in the game. The group that wanted to put pressure on opposing offenses now had it thrown back at them in a major way.

There were other quarterbacks that ran it well before Vick, as many critics of his recent comments have pointed out. But, the timing of Vick's arrival, with the spread offense on the horizon and the need to make a monumental paradigm offensive shift, will forever have him at the forefront of the movement, if you will.

"I revolutionized the game" Vick said.

You don't have to tell me twice. I already knew.