The Steelers were in need of a backup quarterback, what with Landry Jones showing through this preseason that he's not yet ready for prime-time and with Bruce Gradkowski piggybacking surgery on a finger on top of a right shoulder injury that kept him on the sideline throughout the offseason program and then on the physically unable to perform list for all but a couple of days of training camp.
Every NFL team's personnel department compiles what it calls a "ready list" that it consults in the event an injury to a player creates a void on the roster at a particular position. The "ready list" at quarterback is frightening. Chandler Harnish, Curtis Painter, Jason Campbell, and Tyler Thigpen are examples of the names on the list with NFL experience.
Michael Vick was another name on the "ready list," and that's why the Steelers signed him to a one-year contract earlier today.
Vick, who turned 35 on June 26, is a 13-year veteran with 138 NFL games under his belt. He has completed 56.1 percent of his passes for 22,093 yards, with 131 touchdowns and 87 interceptions for a career passer rating of 80.4. He also averaged 7.0 yards per rush on 853 carries and scored another 36 touchdowns as a runner/scrambler. And even though Vick has played 13 NFL seasons, his teams have made the playoffs only four times, and he has played in a total of six postseason games.
The first group of numbers – combined with the rest of the names on the "ready list" – provide solid evidence of why the Steelers were interested in the possibility of Vick being Ben Roethlisberger's backup, and the second set of numbers is why Vick was interested in the possibility of being Ben Roethlisberger's backup.
At his age and at this stage of his career, Vick is most interested in playing for a team he views as a contender, which he expressed to other teams that had contacted him this spring/summer, and Coach Mike Tomlin has a history here of having veteran backups with starting experience at other NFL outposts. Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch both were employed by the Steelers when Tomlin coached the team to Super Bowls following the 2008 and 2010 seasons.
Tomlin has said he likes backups who have been franchise quarterbacks elsewhere in the NFL because the stage won't be too big for them, and because they understand what the starting quarterback is going through since they've been through it themselves.
"He has to be capable of holding down the fort in short stints, capable of putting your team in a position to win when the starter is out," Tomlin once said in response to a question about what he looks for in a backup quarterback. "He has to be ready to play off a limited number of snaps. Someone with experience in the league lends itself to that. A young backup requires snaps. A veteran backup requires fewer snaps, and in today's NFL there are not a lot of snaps available for a backup quarterback in game prep."
Specifically for the Steelers during a typical regular season week of preparation, the backup quarterback gets whatever snaps Roethlisberger doesn't want. In other words, when Roethlisberger believes he's seen enough on the practice field to feel prepared for the upcoming opponent, then the backup gets onto the field for something other than serving as the scout team quarterback for the defense. If Roethlisberger believes he needs all of the snaps during a particular week to feel prepared, well, then the backup is out of luck.
The Steelers found themselves in the market for a veteran backup because of the injuries to Gradkowski. Whenever a thirtysomething quarterback misses all but just a couple of days worth of the 2015 calendar year, first with a shoulder injury and then with a finger injury requiring surgery, he is putting himself in the same category as Leftwich found himself toward the end of his time with the Steelers – that being a guy who is casting doubts about his immediate future availability because of a series of injuries.
When Leftwich, and then Batch, no longer were able to maintain a level of health with which the Steelers were comfortable, they moved on to Gradkowski. Now with Gradkowski, 32, starting to stack injuries on top of each other, the Steelers decided it was time to make a move to shore up what they see as an important role on their team.
And maybe there also was a visual element to the team's decision to sign Vick, because last November he engineered a 20-13 upset of the Steelers by completing 10-of-18 for 132 yards and two touchdowns while also rushing eight times for another 39 yards. Somewhere in Tomlin's memory there likely still is the painful visual of Vick dropping a perfect pass into the arms of a double-covered T.J. Graham for the 67-yard touchdown that staked the Jets to a 10-0 lead midway through the first quarter.
Because of the 23 months sentence Vick served -- 21 months in Leavenworth and two months of home confinement -- after pleading guilty in 2007 to his role in an interstate dog fighting ring, this signing will be seen as controversial in some circles. But since being released from prison, Vick has been active with the Humane Society. He spoke to students twice-a-month through 2010, and in 2011 he went to Capitol Hill to speak in support of legislation that would criminalize spectators and others who organize dog-fighting.
"I deeply regret my previous involvement in dogfighting, I'm sorry for what I did to the animals," Vick said at a news conference in Washington, D.C. "During my time in prison, I told myself I wanted to be part of the solution, not the problem."
Vick was accompanied to Capitol Hill back in 2011 by the president/CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, Wayne Pacelle.
"He has been strongly committed to the program, to the anti-dog fighting program that the Humane Society operates," said Pacelle at the same news conference. "I just talked to him the other day, and he reiterated that he's available on Tuesdays to continue to reach out to at risk kids and to warn them away from dogfighting. He obviously had an enormous wakeup call, and I have felt that he's been strongly committed to the goals that we're advancing, which [are] the end of dogfighting in America and a heightened awareness."