Vick: Sophomore Slump?
By Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 12/11/00
The 2000 Heisman Trophy ceremony came and went Saturday night without much fanfare for Hokie fans. Just two short months ago, you wouldn't have thought this would be the case. This was supposed to be Michael Vick's year, the year that #7 brought the spotlight -- and the little bronze trophy of a long-ago football player stiff-arming unseen competition -- to Blacksburg.
Instead, the Heisman went to Florida State's Chris Weinke, a quarterback playing in the type of offensive system that ensures that if you're breathing, you've got a shot at the Heisman. Weinke won the trophy in fairly close voting over Oklahoma's Josh Heupel. That's a ream job -- did anyone notice that Weinke's interceptions deep in Miami territory helped cost the Noles a big game, whereas Heupel went undefeated? -- but thatís a discussion for another time.
Vick finished sixth in the voting, a testament to the support that swelled up after last year's Sugar Bowl and never quite went away, despite an often lackluster season. Truth be told, Hokie teammate Lee Suggs deserved Heisman votes more than Vick did. Suggs led the nation in touchdowns (28) and in scoring (168 points) and finished 18th in rushing, without losing a single fumble (he fumbled twice, but they were recovered by Tech) in 222 carries.
Meanwhile, after a stellar 1999 freshman season that saw him lead the nation in passing efficiency with the third-highest rating of all time, Vick became a mere mortal in the year 2000. He fell to 36th in the country in passing efficiency in 2000, fifth in his own conference (behind -- gasp -- Troy Nunes of Syracuse).
So what happened? Was this a case of the dreaded "sophomore slump"? Like so many athletes before him who made a splash in their first year, did Vick backtrack in his second year? Statistically, yes. And in many other ways, yes.
The drop-off in Vick's statistics does appear to be a classic case of sophomore slump:
In many ways, Vick's 2000 statistics aren't very different from his 1999 stats. The attempts, completions, completion percentage, and interceptions are all very similar to the numbers he tallied in his freshman year.
Where his season diverges from last year is in three major areas: yardage, touchdowns, and a statistic not shown in his passing totals, fumbles.
Vick's passing yardage dropped dramatically this season, from 184 yards/game in 1999 to 123.4 per game in 2000, a fall of 33%. This despite that fact that his completions per game statistic barely changed (dropping from 9 completions per game to 8.7). His yards per attempt statistic dropped from 12.1 to 7.67, a fall of 36.7%, nearly equal to the drop in his passing average.
Last year, Vick's 12.1 yards per passing attempt were an incredible statistic rarely seen and a big contributor to his pass efficiency rating of 180.4. For comparison, a quick look at the top 40 quarterbacks in the nation in passing efficiency in the year 2000 reveals that not one of them averaged over 10 yards per attempt.
So you can attribute part of the fall in Vick's yardage totals to him simply coming back down to earth and playing more like your average quarterback. But the simple truth is, you can attribute a large portion of his lower yardage totals to an inability to hit the deep ball.
In the year 2000, Vick didn't go deep the way he did in 1999. Last year, it seemed that once per game, he was hitting Andre Davis in stride behind the defense for a long TD. In 11 games, Davis caught 35 passes, averaging 27.5 yards per catch and scoring 9 touchdowns.
This year, in an injury shortened season that saw Davis play significant minutes in just 6 games, his production fell to 24 receptions, with only 13.3 yards per catch and just 2 touchdowns.
And it seemed that when he was healthy early in the year, time and again he got behind the defense, and time and again, Vick missed him. All year long, in stark contrast to 1999, Vick showed very little accuracy on the deep ball. As a freshman, he put the ball high in the air, allowing his receivers to run under it, but this year, his long incompletions were often flat, with very little arc, and far off the mark.
A look at Vick's game-by-game statistics bear out that impression. Vick only had long TD passes in three games: Akron (59 yards to Emmett Johnson), Temple (41 yards to Cullen Hawkins), and West Virginia (72 yards to Bob Slowikowski and 64 yards to Davis).
Only one of those -- the 64-yarder to Davis against WVU -- was a true fly pattern where Vick hit the receiver in stride.
Just for statsmanship, if you lower Vick's 1999 average to a reasonable 10 yards per completion (still better than every other quarterback in the country in the year 2000), you get 1520 total yards, or 152 yards per game.
Now, arbitrarily add 4 touchdowns passes of 50 yards to his 2000 totals (TD passes that were arguably there in 1999, but not in 2000). This would give him 12 touchdowns, just like last year, and 1434 total yards (143.4 yards per game), a mere 5.6% lower than the modified 1999 statistic.
This doesn't really "prove" anything, except to point out that Vick was only four long passes away from having a pretty good season and significantly boosting his efficiency rating. Not only that, but a handful of long TD passes spread out over the 10 games he played would have made his season "seem" a lot better to those who watch him closely, and would have added some nice clips to his Heisman highlight reel.
And these mythical long TD receptions that we seek to create were available to him, too. He simply missed them this year, unlike last year.
The previous discussion hints that the falloff in Vick's passing statistics can be traced in large part to a lack of long TD passes. Last season, of course "the long ball" meant "a pass to Andre Davis."
Given that, let's make the direct connection between the decline in Vick's statistics and the decline in Davis's statistics. Here are Andre Davis's 1999 and 2000 statistics:
Now, remove Davis's reception statistics from Vick's 2000 passing totals, and add Davis's 1999 statistics to Vick's 2000 passing totals. For an increase of 11 receptions, add one attempt per reception. Here's what you get:
Admittedly, that's a rather arbitrary thing to do (for example, it assumes 11 attempts for the extra 11 completions), but it goes a long way towards illustrating the point that what was missing from Vick's season this year was the connection he had with Andre Davis during the 1999 season.
Yet another arbitrary exercise: remove Davis's reception totals from the 1999 statistics and the 2000 statistics, and see what you get. This time, remove enough attempts per Davis completion that Vick's overall percentage doesn't change:
You can see that Vick's production with receivers other than Davis actually increased over last year, but there's one big caveat here. Last year, Davis played all 11 regular season games and was healthy all season. This season, after he hurt himself in the West Virginia game, he was never the same again, barely playing at all.
All told, although Davis played in 9 games, he was really only playing full speed in 6 of them.
Back to the Michael Vick discussion. Vick's fumbling statistics in the year 2000 are enough to make Hokie fans cringe: of Virginia Tech's 29 fumbles, Vick had 13 of them (1.3 fumbles per game), losing 6.
He fumbled in every single game he played in, with the exception of the season-opening Akron game. In one particularly hideous two-game stretch, against Boston College and Temple, he fumbled 6 times, losing 3 of them.
Unfortunately, it's not possible for me to compare Vick's 2000 fumbling statistics to his 1999 fumbles. The 1999 fumble statistics are not included in Virginia Tech's 2000 football media guide, and my attempts to find 1999 football statistics on the hokiesportsinfo.com web site and the MV2K Heisman web site were unsuccessful.
But I can tell you this: as a team, the Hokies only fumbled 19 times in 1999 (10 fewer than in 2000), and I don't remember Vick fumbling a lot.
The fumbles contribute to the perception that Vick struggled this year. Players who are playing with confidence and who are concentrating well don't fumble the football. Michael has always carried the ball loosely, causing many a Hokie heart to flutter, but during his stellar freshman campaign, he didn't cough the ball up as much as he did this year.
One area that did improve slightly for Vick in the year 2000 was his running. Here's a comparison:
Those rushing totals include lost yardage, primarily from sacks. Many of you may be thinking, "Hey, not only did Vick average more yards per carry this year, but he was sacked a lot more, too, so that's pretty impressive."
That perception is incorrect. Last year, VT opponents sacked Tech quarterbacks 26 times (sorry, I donít know how many of those were sacks of Vick), and this year, they sacked Tech quarterbacks just 22 times. I donít know how many times Vick was sacked in 1999 vs. 2000, but he played roughly the same number of games, so you can assume that the comparison between Tech team sacks can be extrapolated out to individual sacks for Vick. In other words, there was little statistical difference in sacks between 1999 and 2000.
So Vick was not sacked more this year than he was last year, despite what the 8 sacks by Syracuse and Vick's struggles in the pocket may have led you to believe. And the lost yardage statistics for Vick bear that out: in 1999, his rushing totals included 197 yards in losses, and this year, his totals include just 183 yards in losses.
Vick's ability to run the ball served him well this year, in more ways than one. In 1999, he was a human highlight reel in both the passing and running games. This year, the great passes were few and far between, but the runs were still there. Long jaunts against Akron (63 yards) and Syracuse (55 yards) come quickly to mind, but the play that really stands out is the 82 yard run against Boston College, a leaping, running, spinning film clip that will flash across your TV screen for many years to come, long after Vick is gone and we are reflecting on his career.
As a matter of fact, it is touchdown runs like that one that probably kept his Heisman hopes alive for so long and enabled him to finish #6 in the voting.
As usual, this discussion is heavy on the statistical analysis, but that's to prove a point. Statistically, in many ways, Vick's season wasn't drastically different from last season. Throw in a few long TD passes, and his 2000 season is very reminiscent of his 1999 season.
But for Michael Vick and Hokie fans, the 2000 football season didn't feel anything like the 1999 season. It felt a lot worse. He often looked confused in the pocket and out of it, frowning on the field, hiding his head under a towel on the sidelines, and talking to the press about trying not to do everything himself and just getting back to the way he knows how to play football. Those are the words and actions of a football player who is not happy and is struggling.
The season-opening game against Akron and the season-ending game against Virginia were good games that bookended a mostly forgettable season for Michael Vick. Against Akron and UVa, he was 23-34 (67.6%) for 388 yards, 3 TD's and 1 INT. In between, he was 64-127 (50.4%) for 846 yards, 5 TD's and 5 INT's. His 233-yard, 2 TD performance against WVU was the only bright passing performance in the long days between September 2nd and November 25th.
He can be, and will be, better next year. The only question is whether or not he will spend next season in a Virginia Tech uniform. We'll know in mid-January, when underclassmen must announce their intentions to enter the NFL draft or stay in school for one more year. A few months ago, I thought that Vick's return to Tech was a slam-dunk, but in the last few weeks, sources seem to be split on whether or not he'll stay.
Naturally, I hope he stays. I want to see the sophomore slump get followed by a junior jam session.
Will Stewart is the founder and General Manager of TechSideline.com. He writes the News and Notes section, game previews, and game reports for TSL, and generally runs the place with his prodigious and productive brain.