Dan Reeves finally delivered on his promise Sunday afternoon. He gave Michael Vick the ball at a crucial point of a regular-season game.
A coach whose play-calling is often criticized for being too predictable, Reeves' decision to use the element of surprise paid off in the Atlanta Falcons' 24-16 victory over the Carolina Panthers.
With 12:41 remaining and the Falcons clinging to a four-point lead, Vick was given a chance to put the ball in the end zone.
"That was part of my package for this weekend," the Newport News native said. "It was one of the plays I had. I knew once we got inside the 5, I was going in."
As Vick strapped on his helmet and returned to the field for the first time since the second quarter, most of the 47,804 at the Georgia Dome roared with approval. They had already watched the 21-year-old rookie flash his exceptional speed in a 13-play, 67-yard drive that ended with a field goal.
This time, facing third-and-goal at the 2, the Falcons needed a touchdown.
"He had an option to run or throw according to what the defense did," Reeves said, "and he made the right choice."
The play, designed to run to the left side, called for Jamal Anderson to go in motion and for Vick either to dump a short pass to the running back or run the ball in himself. He chose the latter. As he has done most of his life, Vick won the race.
He had the ball in his left arm and was crossing the goal line when strong safety Damien Richardson planted his helmet into the right side of Vick's ribs.
Though he suffered a bruise that made him lie motionless in the end zone for a couple of seconds, Vick shrugged off the pain long enough to ask for the ball as he jogged back to the sideline.
His first NFL touchdown was a keeper.
"I wanted that ball," he said. "It's something I'll always remember."
Vick decided to go for the end zone himself when right cornerback Doug Evans stepped outside to cover Anderson.
"If the cornerback came up on me, I'd throw to Jamal over the top," Vick said. "When I saw what the cornerback did, I just took it and ran it. There was a big gap up the middle. It was just a footrace to the end zone."
Vick claimed he had just as much fun watching on the first possession of the third quarter when starting quarterback Chris Chandler connected with Anderson for a 94-yard touchdown.
Reeves called for an unconventional play in that situation, too, with Chandler's faking a play-action handoff to fullback Bob Christian long enough for Anderson to break into a sprint up the middle of the field.
Anderson caught the ball at the 35-yard line and ran untouched for 17-10 lead.
Reeves also changed things as to when Vick would enter the game. In the season-opening loss at San Francisco, Vick ran the offense on the second possession of the first and third quarters.
This time, plans called for Vick to play the third possession of the first half, and to let the flow of the game dictate if and when he would be used again.
"We were going to involve him in certain ways," Reeves said. "We just felt his presence would cause some problems for the defense."
Aside from the emotionally charged pregame ceremonies to honor those who died in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, the loudest cheers were for Vick.
He connected with wide receiver Tony Martin on his second play, an 18-yard gain that brought the Falcons to their 47 and gave Vick his first completed pass as a pro.
After Jay Williams sacked him for an 11-yard loss on the next play, Vick broke off runs of 9 and 12 yards. A 9-yard completion to tight end Alge Crumpler followed, and Vick handed off to Anderson on the next five plays.
Jay Feely ended the drive with a 25-yard field goal that tied the score at 10.
"It felt great to go out there and help this football team get a win," Vick said. "Any time I can go out and help us win, it's a good day."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun