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How Michael Vick Salvaged His Image and Revived His Career in Philadelphia

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How Michael Vick Salvaged His Image and Revived His Career in Philadelphia
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There are some people out there—lots of people—who will never forgive Michael Vick. That's their right. There are many who will never be capable of cheering for him on the field based solely on what he did off of it, which is their prerogative. 

I'll never understand how Vick did what he did, regardless of cultural barriers. I believe each of the 548 days he served in a federal penitentiary were deserved. If I had the choice, based on what he's done and what I've heard, I wouldn't befriend a man like Michael Vick.

But because we're complex people—both as critics and subjects—it's possible for our perspectives on one another to have multiple layers, especially as we evolve. Which is how we can at once despise Vick for his past transgressions while also applauding him for what he's done since becoming a free man.

Eagles fans and Philadelphians in general should be proud of the fact that Jeffrey Lurie's organization played a major role in Vick's post-USP Leavenworth rehabilitation. 

After all, when Vick was sentenced in 2007 to 23 months behind bars for his major role in an unlawful interstate dog fighting venture, it truly felt like his career was over. Few expected him to come back from that as a man, let alone as an NFL football player. 

In fact, few thought he deserved the chance. Check out the results of this Gallup poll, which was conducted three months before his sentencing in '07: 

Brad Gagnon/Gallup/BR

But when he was released in the summer of 2009, it was the Eagles who gave Vick a shot to redeem himself personally and professionally. Twenty-four days after Vick was freed from the two-month home-confinement period that capped his sentence, he was an NFL player again. Maybe even a quarterback.

But on that last point, it was highly unlikely. Many saw him as a speciality player, a new weapon at running back or wide receiver to carry the Wildcat fad north from Miami. This is how ESPN.com news services termed it:

Michael Vick is back in the NFL. When he finally gets in a game, it might be at a new position.

Looking to add a new dimension to their offense, the Philadelphia Eagles gave the disgraced quarterback a one-year deal with an option for a second year. Vick wasn't brought in to compete with five-time Pro Bowl quarterback Donovan McNabb for a starting job, but the two could end up on the field together.

With direct-snaps to backs becoming all the rage, it made sense. The Eagles had a franchise quarterback in McNabb and Kevin Kolb, Jeff Garcia and A.J. Feeley remained on the roster. The Eagles were doing Vick a favor, placing faith in the 29-year-old and his mentor, Tony Dungy

"I'm a believer that as long as people go through the right process, they deserve a second chance," Eagles head coach Andy Reid said then, per ESPN.com. "He's got great people on his side; there isn't a finer person than Tony Dungy. He's proven he's on the right track."  

Nobody could have guessed that within 13 months he'd be Philly's franchise quarterback. But don't underestimate the impact Vick's on-field performance had on everything else related to his rehab and redemption. 

This was a very controversial move...

But rightly or wrongly, the fact that Vick stayed out of trouble while climbing the quarterback ladder helped the tension fade. 

Key dates in the timeline...

Aug. 27, 2009: Only two weeks after signing, in his first preseason game, Vick completes all four of his passes, including a missile to Hank Baskett

Jan. 9, 2010: Vick would complete only six passes throughout the regular season, running 24 times for a measly 95 yards. But he might have left fans and the team with at least a small indication that he still had it. In Philly's ugly wild-card playoff loss to the rival Cowboys, Vick provides the only real highlight with a 76-yard touchdown pass to Jeremy Maclin

Sept. 12, 2010: With McNabb gone and Kolb out with a concussion, Vick enters Philly's season-opener against Green Bay. As a reliever, he nearly leads the Eagles back from a 17-point second-half deficit. 

Sept. 19, 2010: Vick makes his first start as an Eagle exactly 1,358 days after making his last one as a Falcon. He posts a 108.0 passer rating, leading Philly to a 35-32 victory over the Lions. That would set the tone for an incredible 2010 season in which he was often viewed as a legitimate MVP candidate. 

Compiled by Brad Gagnon/BR

Nov. 7, 2010: The rest of Vick's best season was highlighted by three particularly unforgettable games. First, on this date, he slays Peyton Manning and the juggernaut Colts just after returning from a rib injury. From Andrew Kulp of The 700 Level:

Perhaps the strongest win from his time in Philly, Vick was just returning from a rib injury that knocked him out for three games when the Eagles encountered Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts. Not surprisingly, Vick was up the task.

The numbers may not seem like much. Vick was 17 of 29 for 218 yards and a touchdown through the air, 10 rushes for 74 yards and a score on the ground. Most importantly, he played turnover-free football and didn’t give Manning any extra chances. A late interception by Asante Samuel sealed a hard-fought 26-24 victory for the Birds.

Nov. 15, 2010: One week later, Vick puts on one of the most entertaining and dominant performances I've ever witnessed, posting six touchdowns—five in the first half!—as Philly embarrasses Washington in historic fashion on national television.

Dec. 19, 2010: Most of you remember this game for DeSean Jackson's walkoff punt return touchdown. But the Eagles never would have been in that position had it not been for Vick. Philadelphia was down 21 in the fourth quarter before Vick scored three touchdowns—two passing, one running—on a heroic rampage. 

Again, when you accomplish feats like that on the field, it becomes a little easier to forget about the warts you have in the real world. 

Highest-rated QBs in Eagles history (min. 600 attempts)
Quarterback Rating Comp. % YPA
1. Michael Vick 87.7 59.5 7.7
2. Donovan McNabb 86.5 59.0 6.9
3. Sonny Jurgensen 81.1 54.9 8.8
4. Randall Cunningham 78.7 55.7 6.8
5. Ty Detmer 78.2 57.7 6.9

Pro Football Reference

That was the climax of the Vick era in Philadelphia. In fact, it might have been the climax of his entire career, maybe his life. It makes sense, I suppose, in terms of the standard dramatic structure. And although this is the real world, the last three seasons have definitely resembled a denouement, but it's not a story with a completely happy ending. Not in Philadelphia, at least. 

Vick's 2011 and 2012 campaigns were marred by a lack of consistency and durability. He turned the ball over too often and missed nine games due to injury. He's 33 now, less nimble and unlikely to suddenly capture the right formula with any sort of storybook last hurrah. Philadelphia gave him plenty of chances, but it was time to replace him with a newer model. The Jets offer a better opportunity to start, and so an era is over. 

But while Vick was an Eagle he proved to the world that a dude can spend nearly two years behind bars and still bounce back to lead a team to the NFL playoffs. He went from being Federal Inmate No. 33765-183 to NFL starting quarterback and MVP candidate in 18 months, which is a testament to how gifted he is. 

But while Vick was an Eagle, he also became the leader he never was in Atlanta.

In an ESPN The Magazine feature on Vick's time in jail, Seth Wickersham documented one particular prison visit Vick received from former Falcons teammate Kynan Forney:

After a few minutes of small talk, Vick blurts out, "I should have been watching tape."

"What do you mean?"

"I was doing just enough, going off instincts. We could have been much more dangerous. I'm one of the best quarterbacks in the game with this skill set, and I'm in prison."

Forney is shocked but doesn't show it. Vick's just figuring this out? Maybe he should have told Vick to study more, but no, it was understood in the Falcons' locker room that Vick's 90 percent was better than most quarterbacks' 100 percent. Next time, Vick says with an intensity that Forney never saw in Atlanta, he'll be a better teammate.

But in Philadelphia, because Vick had that revelation, you got the feeling the Eagles were getting 100 percent of him. That ultimately wasn't good enough, but instead of being told to study more, he was setting the tone for his juniors. 

The best example came last summer when Vick talked his teammates down and publicly forgave Riley Cooper after Cooper was filmed using a racist slur. By drawing on his life experiences and convincing the locker room to give Cooper a second chance, Vick might have saved Philadelphia's season. 

While Vick was an Eagle, he paid off all of his debts. While behind bars in 2008, Vick filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, owing creditors approximately $20 million, according to Forbes. But he was on the brink of becoming debt-free a full year ago, and he's been paid plenty since. 

And while in Philly, Vick became significantly more humble. Or at least we first saw it here. Maybe that transformation happened in lockup. Regardless, it manifested itself at the NovaCare Complex, and at Lincoln Financial Field, but also in the community. Regardless of how deliberately it was crafted, Vick's final farewell letter to the citywhich appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer—revealed how mature he'd become:

I would like to thank the Eagles and the entire city of Philadelphia. I was honored to be their quarterback and took the privilege to heart every day. I especially want to thank Jeffrey Lurie and Andy Reid, who gave me the opportunity. I want to thank my teammates, who were not just coworkers, but friends. I also want to thank the millions of fans who cheered and supported our team.

People say Philadelphia fans are tough. I say they are fair. A player is not judged solely by his past or promises of the future, but by his actions today, and the next day, and the next.

In my time volunteering, I have met Philadelphia's heroes. I've met at-risk children with few resources, but with teachers tirelessly helping them make the most of a second chance. I've seen the work of volunteers at school fund-raisers, food drives, after-school programs, hurricane shelters, Toys for Tots campaigns, Boys and Girls Clubs, and the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and the meaningful work of the Humane Society of the United States. I've seen children choosing the mentorship of a football coach over peer pressure on a street corner. One of the best examples of a community deserving a second chance is the North Philadelphia Aztecs youth football team. As the players step onto Team Vick Field, they can hold their heads high and be proud that they are making Philly stronger.

The Eagles are an outstanding organization with a bright future, and I'm thankful for all the friendship, love, and support they gave me and my family. I look forward to seeing great things from them both on the field and in the community.

“My thing was always to try to make amends for the things that I’ve done,” Vick said as he cleared out his locker at the team facility in January, according to NJ.com's Eliot Shorr-Parks.

Time heals all wounds. Some people are going to forgive you. Some people aren’t. My goal was to make people a believer through my actions, through the good deeds I was able to do, the things I was able to put myself in a position to do through acts of God was all I ever wanted. Things have taken a turn for the better. I want to keep that momentum going.

Momentum is a strange term here because it feels like Vick has run out of it. But the big picture gives you a better feel for the kind of ground he could be gaining. He mentored Nick Foles quite impressively in Philly and now has the chance to leave his mark on another young quarterback, Geno Smith, in New York. 

Vick himself might never get that elusive Super Bowl ring. Hell, he might not even gain another starting role. Yet it still feels like a guy who was once considered doomed by everyone in his audience is somehow picking up steam. 

The Eagles played a starring role in that redemption. 

"Philadelphia," wrote Shorr-Parks, "is saying goodbye to a better person than the one who first arrived."

That's a victory. 

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