Sitting at a table with Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid, Cam Newton first met Michael Vick at the 2010 Maxwell Award ceremony in Orlando, Fla.
The two hit it off immediately, and the then-Auburn quarterback picked the brain of the quarterback he idolized growing up in suburban Atlanta.
Since then, they have had numerous conversations. Sometimes Newton did the talking, sometimes he listened to Vick’s advice to just “play your game and let the game come to you.”
“The skill set that I have and the skill set that he has is kind of rare, especially in this league, but it’s your gift and your curse,” Newton said. “Sometimes it can get you out of a lot of trouble. Sometimes it can put you in trouble if you lean on it too much.”
Though there were a handful before him, Michael Vick is considered the innovator of the dual-threat quarterback. His agility, speed and arm strength ushered in a new way to play quarterback for a generation of kids watching pro football.
Newton was one of those kids in the early 2000s, watching Vick do unheralded things while defensive coordinators scrambled to adjust. Since then, more dual-threat quarterbacks have entered the league, but no two may be as prominent as Newton and Vick.
Both will be in Philadelphia tonight, when the Carolina Panthers visit the Philadelphia Eagles, although Vick will miss the game for the Eagles after suffering a concussion.
Cecil Newton still has the No. 7 Atlanta Falcons jersey his son used to wear as a young teenager. He gets a kick out of the youth-sized jersey now that his son, Cam, is 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds.
Growing up in the Atlanta area when Vick fever was at its height, Newton wanted to be just like the Falcons’ quarterback.
“Everyone wanted to either wear No. 7, play quarterback, throw left handed, be agile like him, buy his shoes,” Newton said.
Vick was must-see TV, as Cecil Newton said, and that was all Cam Newton could do. With his father being a Baptist preacher, Cam Newton couldn’t get over to the Georgia Dome often to see Vick in person, so he settled for the broadcasts.
Though Newton wanted to emulate Vick’s ability to make plays with his feet when the original call broke down, Cecil Newton kept his son keyed into the fundamentals.
“You can’t train and prepare for what you might end up doing in the game. It’s an evolvement of what they give you,” said Cecil Newton, a former safety at Savannah State in the ’80s. “It’s an extension of what you might do in the sandlot, when you understand what it takes to do to move the chains.
“We didn’t spend a whole lot of time doing fakes in the yard. I wanted him to predicate more so on understanding coverages, and I think he did learn a tremendous amount in high school and college.
“He has the ability to be elusive, but you can’t live and die with that one little premise. You still have to be able to throw effectively either out of the pocket on the run or from the pocket.”
Before Atlanta took Vick with the No.1 pick in 2001, he spent two years at Virginia Tech, leading the Hokies to the national title game his redshirt freshman year. Before going to federal prison in 2007 for an illegal dogfighting ring, Vick spent six seasons with the Falcons that included three Pro Bowls but only two winning seasons.
“There are people to this day, in barbershops across that town that still are hurt that Michael Vick is no longer an Atlanta Falcon,” Cecil Newton said. “No disrespect to Matt Ryan or the great season this team is having and all this. But he gripped that town.
“They were hungry for a face. The Falcons were kind of down. The Braves had a couple of players in Chipper Jones, their pitching staff. The season was ripe for this college phenom to continue what he had accomplished in college. And he came and was all as advertised. But there were games where he couldn’t finish and we walked away. And as a fan and as a spectator, you ride those bumpy rides with the guys you really want to hang your hat on.”
Following Vick’s lead
Four of the past five Heisman-winning quarterbacks are products of the Vick generation.
Starting in 2006 with Ohio State’s Troy Smith, the influx of dual-threat quarterbacks from the college to professional ranks has been gradual.
In the past, the term dual-threat quarterback had a double meaning. It meant the quarterback was good on both the ground and in the air, but mostly often the quarterback was black.
Vick, Warren Moon, Donavan McNabb, Daunte Culpepper and Steve McNair were all labeled dual-threat quarterbacks, with Steve Young remaining for years the lone white exception. But the Vick generation has brought more diversity to the term “dual-threat quarterback,” and it’s no longer such a code word as an apt title.
“You start to see it with some of these quarterbacks coming in with Cam and (Robert Griffin III) and you see their ability to run and be a double threat,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “Even a guy like Andrew Luck, people talked about him running the ball a few times too. I think the age of the athletic quarterback who can throw the ball is coming very quickly.
“It’s nothing for a young college football player to throw the ball 35-40 times a game. You play 11, 12, 13 games, it’s easy for you to throw 350-400 passes a year. You start to see those guys develop and come into the league now.”
Newton set rookie records last season for both passing yards (4,051) and rushing yards by a quarterback (706). While Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski installed plenty of draws and zone-read options for Newton, many of those rushing yards came on scrambles like the ones Vick made so electrifying.
Not only do defenses now have to adjust for running quarterbacks, but so, too, do offensive coordinators.
“It allows you to open some things up,” Chudzinski said. “The scramble drill, which traditionally wasn’t a big deal, is all of a sudden a big thing. It’s almost an offense in and of itself. Where you get guys and where you space them out after a scramble starts to the right or to the left on different plays. You have different guys in different spots. That alone has opened up all kinds of things.”
Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson also grew up not far from Atlanta. As a defender, he’s seen first-hand how Vick’s influence has changed the landscape of both the quarterback position and football in general.
“It’s crazy how different cats are just sprouting out in the league and their athletic ability,” Johnson said. “You got to say Vick led the way for certain cats to come in the league. If he can do it, other cats can do it.”
Faces of a city
Vick and Newton are inextricably linked: College’s most dynamic player turned no-brainer No. 1 pick, face of a city and face for an apparel giant in football.
But they also have their differences.
“When you look at a dual-threat quarterback, there are a lot of things that I look at that make me different,” Newton said. “I’m not as fast as he is. I know that. I’m not as quick as him either. But there’s stuff that I feel I can get away with and he can’t and things that he can get away with that I can’t.
“We share a rare talent in this league, and that’s nothing to boast or brag about because at the same time, there are things Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady can do that I’m envious about.”
The quicker, faster Vick also has a propensity for taking big hits. He’s out for Monday’s game after suffering a concussion, his second in two seasons, two weeks ago.
In last week’s loss to Tampa Bay, Newton was knocked to the ground 15 times, some of which Chudzinski said could have been avoided.
But what it takes to bring down the 6-foot, 215-pound Vick isn’t the same as Newton.
“Cam Newton is just power,” ESPN analyst and former NFL coach Herm Edwards said. “When you tackle Cam Newton, he falls for 4 more yards. When you get ready to tackle Cam Newton, you’ve got to make a serious business decision. You’re talking about a 250-pound man. He’s bigger than most guys in the secondary.”
In football genealogy, Vick begat a corps of quarterbacks whose most prominent son is Newton. Now, the position is evolving again.
Can Newton grip a city, a generation of young football players, like Vick did a decade ago?
“I would think so,” Cecil Newton said. “Because when you got something unique, you have to stand back and allow it to mature and grow right before your eyes.
“Cam is a unique talent, and I don’t think many people would contest that.”