Up until this week, the hardest thing Michael Vick had to do this season was figure out how to tell people he was a dog owner once again.
He did it in a statement last month that said a lot about how far he has come since the days he and his buddies thought nothing about killing dogs that weren’t good enough to make a few bucks for his Bad Newz Kennels.
“This is an opportunity to break the cycle,” said Vick, who said he understood how some people might be upset he had a dog. “To that end, I will continue to honor my commitment to animal welfare and be an instrument of positive change.”
That Vick has come this far in his personal rehabilitation is a testament to his perseverance. He did his time — 18 months of it in the federal prison at Leavenworth — then spent some of his time speaking to kids about animal cruelty and the dangers of dogfighting.
If he hasn’t been completely forgiven by dog lovers, he’s probably no longer No. 1 on their target list to hate. Getting a family dog was just one more step in his path toward redemption, a picture of he and the kids with it on the family Christmas card will probably be the next.
If only the football part was going as well.
Stumbling badly after three straight losses, Vick and the Eagles travel to New Orleans for a Monday night game that is about as must-win as it gets. Lose to the Saints and their pathetic defense with games against division foes Dallas and Washington up next, and a season that began with high expectations could be over before the first Thanksgiving turkey is carved.
That likely would mean the end of coach Andy Reid in Philadelphia, who is on notice to deliver more than an 8-8 record this year. And with Reid goes Vick, despite the $100 million contract he signed before the beginning of last season.
That’s life in the NFL, where the only guarantee is there are no guarantees.
Before you start feeling sorry for Vick, though, consider this: Four years ago he was mopping floors at night for 12 cents an hour in a federal prison in Kansas. He had filed for bankruptcy and owed millions he didn’t have despite a $130 million deal he signed in 2005 with the Atlanta Falcons.
Reviled everywhere as a dog abuser, his future was more than just uncertain. Even when he got out of prison his only real offer to play football came from the UFL, and there was no guarantee Commissioner Roger Goodell would even allow him to return to the NFL.
Getting booed by Eagles fans and worrying about your job security doesn’t seem nearly as bad after that.
There’s already a growing chorus in Philadelphia to turn the future of the team over to rookie third-round pick Nick Foles, who had an impressive preseason. And while Reid insists Vick is his quarterback, he also understands that unless the Eagles start finding ways to win — and do it quickly — his job is every bit as tenuous as the guy he’s supporting under center.
This wasn’t exactly what the Eagles expected when they gave Vick a contract that guaranteed him $40 million after he led them to the playoffs in his first full season since getting out of prison. Vick was the AP Comeback Player of the Year that season, posting the highest passing yards and quarterback rating of his career.
“When you give a player a contract, you’re betting on the future, and you’re using the evidence of what he’s done to that point to evaluate your future projection,” former Eagles president Joe Banner said at the time. “And if we didn’t think Michael was somebody capable of leading this team to a Super Bowl, we never would have given him that contract.”
Regrets? The Eagles surely have some.
In the 20 games Vick has played since signing the deal, he’s a .500 quarterback who is maddeningly inconsistent and prone to turning the ball over. Critics argue he doesn’t see the field well, can’t adjust to defenses, and no longer has the legs at the age of 32 to consistently run his way out of trouble.
Vick himself said this week he needed to get his “swag” back and start playing more aggressively.
“Back to playing the way I love to play it and not worry about what’s going to happen, because that’s out of my control,” he said.
No better way to get that swag back than by playing the Saints, who are so defensively challenged that they allow 50 yards more a game than the league’s next worst defense. If Vick and the Eagles can’t take advantage of this matchup, they’re not going to have much in the way of confidence looking ahead.
You have to wonder, though, just what Vick has left. He got through the early part of his career on sheer talent alone, but that isn’t enough anymore. His passer rating is just 78.6, his average yards per carry is the lowest of any in his career as a starter, and he seems befuddled at times directing the offense.
He’s done wonders rebuilding his personal life and reputation, is working his way out of bankruptcy and has a new deal with Nike. His name is much less toxic now, to the point where it can come up in normal conversation without triggering a horrified response.
What defines a football player, though, is whether his name comes up when the talk turns to the Super Bowl.
And it’s beginning to look as if that part of Vick’s comeback won’t be nearly as successful.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg
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