CRITICIZE Michael Vick for whatever you like.

Say he locks on receivers, telegraphs passes, runs too readily, forces passes, fumbles. He won't anticipate receivers coming open and will only throw to wide-open targets. He doesn't always recognize blitzes. He prefers the big play to the safe play.

Say that it took him a decade to commit to learning his own offenses, and it took him even longer to polish his mechanics, which occasionally revert to their playground roots.

Criticize him for all of that, but at least give him this:

He's tough as a $5 steak.

Two weeks ago, Vick suffered a hamstring strain deep and high in his left leg. It is the sort of pull that burns to the bone and lingers for months, especially when you are 33.

Vick does not have months to recover. He has 3 more days.

Backup quarterback Nick Foles got knocked out of the game Sunday with a concussion that likely will cost him this week's game. Rookie backup Matt Barkley threw three interceptions in the fourth quarter, an indictment both of his presence on the roster and the use of a fourth-round pick to put him there.

So, Vick is taking the bulk of the first-team snaps this week in preparation for the Giants' visit Sunday.

He should not be.

He is.


"Mike is tough as nails. He plays hurt a whole bunch," said slot receiver Jason Avant, a tough guy himself - and an appreciator of toughness who recognizes that it can be a form of leadership.

"When your quarterback does it, it leaves no one else on the field with an excuse to not play," Avant said. "It encourages us, if we have nicks and bruises. If a guy feels like his hamstring is about to go, you see Mike do it, and you want to get involved as well.

"He has a lineman's mentality about that. I've seen linemen play through some pretty gruesome injuries. Mike does the same. He doesn't always report it to the media."

To wit: Vick exited the first two games of the season limping noticeably. He admitted after Game 2 that he hurt both of his ankles, but he returned to that game.

Like Allen Iverson and Donovan McNabb before him, Vick considers playing in pain part of the price of the profession.

Preseason injuries to his left (throwing) thumb and to his ribs cost him almost all of the 2012 preseason, which affected his efficiency early last year. It was his third rib injury in as many seasons.

In 2011, he broke his right hand in Game 3, left for the rest of the game but did not miss a start because of that injury. Later in the 2011 season, he broke two ribs on the second play of Game 9 . . . and finished the game. The injury sidelined him for the next three games, but still he returned early and helped the Eagles win the final four games.

A cartilage tear in his ribs in 2010 cost him 3 1/2 games. When he came back, again, probably too early, the Eagles won six of seven and made the playoffs.

Every NFL player fears rib injuries, which hurt with every hit and rob a player of the ability to breathe.

"Playing with the ribs, especially against Arizona, was amazing," said Avant, who has played with torn cartilage in his rib cage. "Finishing that game, and coming back long before he should have. When it's hard to take a breath, and you're a running quarterback, and you've got to get hit a little bit - that's pretty tough."

Vick also suffered a concussion last year that cost him 5 weeks. However, in 2011, Vick was knocked out of Game 2 in Atlanta with a concussion . . . and played the next week.

"We all know he's very tough," Giants defensive end Justin Tuck said. "I think one of the reasons why he's had so many injuries is because he's a tough guy who's going to try to get that extra yard and do the extra thing to help his football team win. Sometimes that backfires."

Yes, when Vick was sandwiched near the goal line against the Redskins in 2010, he might better have avoided that contact.

But his concussion in Atlanta was the result of a missed block; he was hit by a blitzer. The broken hand happened as Giants lineman Chris Canty threw Vick to the ground after Vick released the ball. That play prompted Vick to eviscerate NFL officials, who seemed to be allowing him to be punished far more than the rest of the league's coddled QBs.

He broke his thumb and hurt his ribs in the preseason last year while he was in the pocket.

What's more, this season Vick has made a concerted effort to protect himself.

He will more readily fold and accept a sack rather than try to escape. He will throw the ball away. He will dive onto the ground and surrender (he refuses to slide).

In fact, the play that popped his hamstring was a 13-yard scramble that ended with Vick running out of bounds. He stayed in the game for four more snaps.

"[Toughness is] one of his truly good qualities," said coach Chip Kelly, who appreciates Vick's aggressive nature - and Vick's willingness to harness it this season. "I think you want a quarterback with that mentality, obviously, and I think he's done a better job from a decision-making standpoint from that. I don't think Mike's taken a lot of really big hits. That's why I think for Mike, it's frustrating. He runs out of bounds and does what he's supposed to do, and hurts his hamstring."

Scandalous reports emerged last week that insinuated Vick declined to play Sunday against the Cowboys because he was protecting his future. Vick denied those reports, which perhaps lacked merit, if not logic.

He is playing on a 1-year contract for a team flawed beyond any real playoff expectations.

If Vick truly was protecting his future, he would decline to practice or play until his hamstring is fully healed.

He's tough enough to give it a run.

Give him that, at least.

On Twitter: @inkstainedretch