-- EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- No matter how much fun it might be to imagine otherwise, Michael Vick probably would not have led these New York Jets to the playoffs. Chances are, the most prolific rushing quarterback of all time would not have escaped enough crumbling pockets to spare his team from the NFL no-man's land that is a 7-9 or 8-8 record.
Vick is 34, after all. He hasn't taken a team to the postseason since 2010, and he hasn't won a playoff game in 10 years.
He isn't Tom Brady or Peyton Manning or Russell Wilson or Aaron Rodgers. Vick has never won the big one; in fact he has never appeared in the big one. Despite his undisputed stardom, Vick has two playoff victories in his entire career, he lost his job in Philadelphia to Nick Foles, and he has a long history of getting hurt and playing a little recklessly with the ball.
Yet this much is clear: Michael Vick should have been the starting quarterback of the 2014 Jets from Day 1. And if Vick had been the first-stringer instead of Geno Smith, people wouldn't be flying planes over Jets games and practices mocking the franchise and calling for general manager John Idzik's head.
Vick wasn't great in the Jets' stunning 20-13 victory over Pittsburgh before thousands of towel-waving Steelers fans inside MetLife Stadium, and the numbers strongly suggest he was the second-best quarterback on Ben Roethlisberger's field. That's OK. Vick threw two touchdown passes to Big Ben's garbage-time one, and he made the huge play the Jets needed him to make -- the same huge play Smith never made -- while assuming the role of game manager that was so foreign to him in his freewheeling days in Atlanta.
Vick's 67-yard touchdown pass to T.J. Graham was the difference-maker a few minutes before his 5-yard scoring pass to Jace Amaro gave the Jets a 17-0 lead in the first quarter and left all those Steelers fans wondering if they'd taken the wrong exit off the Jersey Turnpike.
When it was all over, Rex Ryan arrived in a news conference room as the happiest 2-8 coach on the planet. You would've thought he'd just evened the score on that AFC Championship Game he lost at Heinz Field in a different life.
Ryan called Vick "a phenomenal athlete" who can "still run with anyone in this league at that position." After insisting he never looks back on bygone decisions gone awry, Ryan playfully conceded he should've benched Smith for Vick earlier in the season ("Yeah, I should have") before reciting another article of faith about Geno that nobody wanted to hear.
Naturally, Vick was asked if he believed the Jets would've left the building Sunday evening with a winning record if he'd been their starter all along.
"Yeah," he said. "To sit here and say no would show a lack of confidence in myself and my teammates. Absolutely, I think if I was the starter from day one, then maybe it would've been an opportunity, but that wasn't the case. I wasn't put in that situation."
Vick should've been put in that situation. To understand why he wasn't, you have to go back to Woody Johnson's decision to force the newbie Idzik to keep the incumbent Ryan as his head coach.
Entering 2014, Idzik needed to find out if Smith was his franchise player for the long haul, and Ryan needed to win games to save his rump. Everyone knew Idzik would prevail in this battle of conflicting agendas, creating a sham competition in training camp and leaving Vick resigned to his duty as Smith's resident yoda.
"I knew what I was here for," Vick said.
So the Jets made the same mistake they made with Mark Sanchez, who never met a fellow Jets quarterback he feared in camp. Sanchez felt anointed, entitled, and regressed as a result.
Geno Smith? You think he would've gone to the movies in San Diego instead of a team meeting if he thought the Jets were dressing someone who could take his position for keeps?
Come on. Vick was so certain Idzik and Ryan had booked him for an early retirement home that he looked like he needed a walker when he was suddenly thrown in there against the Chargers.
By the time Smith threw those three ghastly interceptions against Buffalo, the season was long gone and so was any thought that Ryan could survive it. Idzik also absorbed heavy criticism over his dreadful personnel decisions, including the call to treat his second-round draftee, Smith, as if he were the No. 1 overall pick.
Vick made some plays out of the bullpen against the Bills, and then protected the ball and posted consecutive passer ratings above 100 in efficient showings against Kansas City and Pittsburgh (Smith hasn't been over 100 all season). Again, Vick's numbers against the Steelers (10 for 18 for 132 yards passing) weren't going to make Brady nervous.
But at the same time, Vick did something Brady could never do by running for 39 yards (or 39 yards more than Big Ben ran for), including an 18-yarder that set up his second touchdown pass and so befuddled a younger man, Brice McCain, that the Pittsburgh corner all but fainted as Vick deked him and cruised on by.
"They're still biting on the old dead-leg fakes," the winning quarterback said through a smile.
The Steelers bit on his earlier play-action fake, too, the one that freed up Graham in the heart of the field. Vick noticed that Pittsburgh was playing a single safety in center field, and he told Graham, "The post may be there."
It was there, and Vick made the throw that ultimately took down the hottest quarterback in the league. Of course, the Steelers knocked around Vick as much as they could, and even sent his helmet flying on one dash to the sideline.
Ryan complained that the refs didn't protect his guy the way they protected Roethlisberger, and Vick merely asked that the refs apply the same rules to the scramblers that they apply to the statues.
Only on the same day he became the first quarterback to rush for 6,000 yards, Vick couldn't run from the fact that the Jets created a mess at quarterback for all involved. As much as he said it was "too late to dwell on that," and as much as he pointed out that Smith wasn't afforded the luxury of Percy Harvin, and as much as he begged reporters not to misconstrue his thoughts about the Jets' record and what might've been, Vick couldn't help but state that things would've been better with the ball in his hands.
"In my heart," he said, "I feel like on any team I can be the starter as long as it's not an Aaron Rodgers or a Ben Roethlisberger. I am not saying that those guys are better quarterbacks. I am just saying that I am confident in my abilities."
Vick said that he didn't regret not pushing harder for Smith's job in the summer, and that he would've been a disruptive force if he had. By all accounts, he has been the same model teammate with the Jets that he was with the Eagles.
But the Idzik-Ryan dynamic put Vick in position to be passive in his approach, and the Jets suffered because of it. At the very least, Vick should've taken over the moment Smith decided to play movie reviewer in San Diego. Better yet, he should've taken over on opening day after the Jets green-lighted him to go after it in camp.
Maybe they're 5-5 right now with Vick playing this kind of turnover-free football, facing a series of winnable games down the stretch. Or maybe he gets hurt a handful of games in and it doesn't matter.
Either way, the Jets screwed up by playing Smith over Vick this year, and some people who should've known better will pay the price for it.