FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. - At the start of the season, Michael Vick was like anyone else about to make his debut as a starting quarterback. The playbook was still a bit confusing. He wasn't quite sure what opposing defenses might throw at him.
By the end of the season, the Atlanta Falcons' star might have to work on his MVP speech.
His teammates and coaches are touting him as the NFL's most valuable player, and it's hard to argue. The Falcons went 16-32 the last three seasons; this year, they have a seven-game unbeaten streak and a 7-3-1 record that puts them in solid contention for their first playoff berth since 1998.
"He's definitely a candidate," coach Dan Reeves said. "He's made us what we are. He's definitely made this football team better. Of course, it all depends on how we finish. If we finish well, he's got to be a candidate."
Vick has transformed an offense known for its shaky line and obscure receiving corps into one of the league's most dangerous units. Last week, the Falcons blew out Carolina 41-0. They are averaging 26 points per game - sixth best in the league and on pace to be the third-highest in team history.
"I look at the MVP as someone a team can't be without," receiver Shawn Jefferson said. "Look across the league. Tell me what quarterback has made more of a difference than Mike. If you base it on that, he wins it hands down."
There are plenty of candidates with more experience - Green Bay's Brett Favre and Oakland's Rich Gannon come to mind - but Vick is clearly moving up the charts with a bullet.
Vick's passing numbers are hardly eye-popping - he has completed 59.5 percent for 1,821 yards and nine touchdowns - but he hasn't made the sort of glaring mistakes that plague many first-year starters. He has only two interceptions and a rating of 90.4, which ranks 11th among starters.
Of course, Vick's speed and quickness are what set him apart from other quarterbacks. He is Atlanta's second-leading rusher with 475 yards, scoring six touchdowns and averaging 6.8 yards per carry.
His penchant for escaping trouble keeps defenses playing on their heels, which lifts everyone around him. A pass rusher might have a clear shot at Vick - this happened a couple of weeks ago against New Orleans - but they're forced to back off for fear that he might get around them on the outside for a big gain.
That gives Vick extra time to throw. And that gives his receivers more time to get open.
With slow-footed Chris Chandler at quarterback a year ago, the Falcons surrendered 64 sacks - more than any other team except Detroit. With only one new starter on the line but Vick at quarterback, the team has given up just 28 sacks in 11 games - a rate that comes out to 41 over a full season.
Then look at Brian Finneran, a receiver who wasn't even drafted and already has been cut by two teams. This year, he's leading the Falcons with 39 receptions.
"An MVP is a guy who can do extraordinary things and make the people around him look good," cornerback Ray Buchanan said. "It's like Michael Jordan with the Bulls. M.J. was a one-man show, but with a team around him. You never really look at the stats with guys like that. You just look at what he's done for the team."
Vick's presence extends off the field as well. In only his second season, he might already be the most recognized player in Falcons history. His No. 7 jersey is one of the league's biggest sellers, and Atlanta is expected to sell out every game for the first time since moving to the 70,000-seat Georgia Dome in 1992.
Vick has brought wins and dollars to a franchise that hasn't had much to cheer about during its existence.
And he's only 22.
"Mike deserves what he gets. He's a great, exciting player," running back Warrick Dunn said. "But is he where he wants to be? Not at all. That's the scary part."