THE HITS keep coming and Mike Vick keeps getting up from them with that too-tough-to-kill attitude he's had for as long as he's played football.

Inject truth serum into every defensive coordinator whose team has played the Eagles this season and every one will tell you that putting Vick out of the game has been at the very top of their pregame things-to-do list.

Concussion, cracked rib, separated shoulder, bruised kidneys or quad, doesn't matter. Whatever it takes. Just get the SOB out of the game.

Vick understands that. And you know what? He's OK with it. He's pretty much been OK with it his whole career. Take your best shot, fellas, he seems to say. I can handle it.

"That's part of the game,'' he said Sunday night after taking another barrage of vicious hits in the Eagles' 30-27 win over the Cowboys. "I don't want anything given to me.''

Asked the other day whether it's become obvious to him that the main objective of opposing defenses is to knock Vick out of the game, Andy Reid said, "I'm not sure what their objective is. But they got a couple of hits on him.''

After the previous game, when the Texans gave Vick a particularly vicious beating, Reid, who seldom complains about the officiating, was moved to say not once, not twice, but three times that the zebras weren't affording Vick the same protection as the rest of the league's quarterbacks.

"He does run, but he's still the quarterback, and you can't treat him like he's a running back there,'' he said. "They treat him like he's half running back, half quarterback. And that's not the position. He's playing the quarterback position.''

Reid was incensed Sunday in the second quarter when the officials didn't throw a flag on Cowboys linebacker Anthony Spencer for a sideline hit on Vick on the tail end of a 6-yard run, just as the quarterback was about to go out of bounds.

Two possessions later, referee Terry McAulay's crew did hit the Cowboys with a roughing-the-passer penalty when both Spencer and teammate Igor Olshansky delivered helmet-to-helmet hits on Vick that should earn both of them fines.

Vick has made gigantic strides as a quarterback since signing with the Eagles 16 months ago. He has improved his footwork. He has become more patient as far as going through his progressions. No longer does he just take off and run if his primary receiver isn't open. Even when he's forced out of the pocket, he keeps his eyes downfield. These are things he seldom did in his six preprison seasons in Atlanta.

But even with five straight 250-plus-yard passing games, even with the league's best interception percentage, even with the second-best yards-per-attempt average, even with the second-best passer rating, the thing that makes Vick different from the other top quarterbacks, the thing that keeps opposing defensive coordinators up at night, is his catch-me-if-you-can running ability.

Donovan McNabb always detested references to his running ability. From the day the Eagles drafted him, he was wary of getting tagged as a "running quarterback.'' Considered it almost a racial insult. He'd rather talk about Terrell Owens than his 3,400 career rushing yards.

Vick, on the other hand, always has taken great pride in the fear he strikes in defenses because of his running ability. He plays the game with a running back mentality, a running back fearlessness.

Four years ago, before his final season with the Falcons, I interviewed Vick at the team's Flowery Branch, Ga., training facility, and asked him why he embraced his running ability, while McNabb seemed almost ashamed of it.

"Everybody's got their own personal goal and what they're going to do and who they're trying to please,'' he said then. "That's not me. [McNabb] is good at what he does. He's good at throwing the ball around. He still has the running ability. He ran a lot when he was in college. I don't see why he'd want to change. But that's what he wants to do. Do what you do, brother. That's what I say.''

I've always believed the reason Vick doesn't slide isn't because he can't learn how to do it, but because he doesn't really want to. I think it's almost a manhood thing with him.

Even at age 30, he probably is the best runner in the league. When he has the ball under his arm, he sees himself less as a quarterback and more as a running back. I mean, would Adrian Peterson or Chris Johnson ever slide? Of course not.

He is a considerably better quarterback today than he was with the Falcons. But inside the guy, there still is a running back trying to get out.

"He plays a physical game,'' Reid said. "That's a tough position. You're going to get hit. And if you run it, you're going to get hit some more. He's a tough nut.''

If ever Vick was going to be tempted to play it a little safer, it would be now. There is a fortune waiting for him around the next bend.

He is just months away from a blockbuster contract. Months away from finally paying off all of his creditors and having enough left over to put him back in the driver's seat financially.

But that's not Vick.

He's played 36 quarters this season and has 82 rushing attempts. That's a little more than nine runs a game. He ran eight times Sunday, albeit for just 16 yards. Ran 10 times the week before against the Texans. Does that sound like a guy who plans to play it safe?

"I'm used to taking hits,'' he said. "It's not that bad. Sometimes they may look harder than they are. If I take one and I lay down, then [you'll know] I took a good one. I feel like, for the most part, I'm a pretty tough guy.''

Too tough to kill. And hopefully, for the Eagles' sake, too tough to knock out of the game. *

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