In the last four NFL seasons, no single player has meandered along a more turbulent and surprising career arc than Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick.
During that time, he has by turns been a three-time Pro Bowler, a dual offensive threat for the Atlanta Falcons, the manager of a covert and illegal dog-fighting ring, and a convicted felon and prisoner.
He has been granted a ten-year, $130 million contract, forced into bankruptcy, cut from his former football team, forced to do PSA’s on behalf of PETA and other animal rights organizations, the subject of a self-titled documentary project about his redemption, and a third-string quarterback earning the league minimum for a veteran.
More recently, Michael Vick has returned to starter status in Philadelphia, overawing commentators and football fans alike with his undiminished quickness and surprisingly elevated passing game.
Vick, a man who few thought deserved a second chance after his conviction, has reinvented himself as an effective on-field leader and upstanding off-the-field citizen.
As a Falcon, Vick never passed particularly well from the pocket and he managed relatively pedestrian quarterback ratings during his four years as the Falcons' offensive leader.
As an Eagle in 2010, Vick is boasting a 110+ QB rating, ranking him among the elite passers in the league.
In two and a half games this season, Vick has thrown for 750 yards and six touchdowns while churning out 170 yards on the ground. Those are numbers reminiscent of Vick’s predecessor, Donovan McNabb, from the latter’s best seasons in Philadelphia.
Football watchers have been mesmerized by Vick’s ascendancy. He was not supposed to be the starter in Philadelphia, a position made vacant for Kevin Kolb after the 2009 season ended.
He was not supposed to be this quick on his feet, this composed on the field, or this mature off it. Forgiving the pun, at thirty years old, how could the old dog learn new tricks?
With regard to his solid performances at quarterback this season, we would be well-reminded of at least a few contributing factors to his surprising success.
First and foremost, Vick is no longer leading the high-flying lifestyle he did during his heady days in Atlanta. He is focused, a student of the game, a player who spends his free time studying tape and working on his form—things he never did as a Falcon.
As importantly, he now has a team that can truly support his talents. It is tough to recall who exactly comprised his wide receiving corps in Atlanta in the early 2000s but his cohort in Philadelphia is made up of an extraordinary group of young gunners, including DeSean Jackson, Brent Celek, LeSean McCoy, Jason Avant, and Jeremy Maclin.
But most of all, Vick seems to be taking advantage of his talents and building on them. He has taught himself to be more patient when under pressure, more communicative with his teammates, a more disciplined player in practice and in games. He is, in short, older and wiser heading into his prime.
Of course, his on-field success has been facilitated by the fact that his two biggest wins were against teams with less-than-stellar defenses.
Few sports aficionados were predicting wins by either the Lions or the Jaguars when the Eagles rumbled into town.
And fortunately for Vick, the good times will continue to roll, as Philadelphia will be visited by the Redskins in the coming week, and then the 49ers, Falcons, and Titans.
It is not until after the bye week that Philadelphia will face a team with a strong defense that might seriously be able to challenge the Eagles offense.
In this, one is reminded somewhat of Brett Favre’s start in Minnesota last year, during which time he faced teams of little discernible defensive ability.
Those weeks allowed Favre to become a more conservative and more accurate passer from the moment he stepped into the Viking purple and gold.
Although Favre and Vick are certainly different quarterbacks with distinct strengths and weaknesses, both have now been in the favorable situation of facing defenses that allowed them to settle comfortably into their own relatively new positions.
One might be further reminded of Favre’s transition to the Vikings (from Green Bay via the Jets) when one reflects on the manner in which the Minnesota fanbase embraced Favre after only a few short weeks.
Football fans who only two years prior had bemoaned Favre’s presence as if he were the devil incarnate were cheering the gunslinger as if he were a local messiah come to save the city.
The real miracle of Vick’s short ascendancy is the manner in which the Philadelphia Eagles fanbase has embraced the once-beset quarterback. The same city that regularly touts having the rowdiest and rudest fans in all of sports has found a guy they seem to support.
In the 11 seasons that Donovan McNabb was the Eagles’ leader on offense, Philadelphians never seemed to fully embrace him.
There was always an excuse for disliking McNabb—that he never won a Super Bowl; that he had a jokey attitude on and off the field; that he was an inconsistent passer.
Sure, McNabb led the team to five NFC Championship Games and a Super Bowl. Sure, he’s one of five quarterbacks to tally 33,000 passing yards and 3,000 more rushing.
Never mind that McNabb was a model citizen off the field, supporting local charities and hospitals for the 11 years that he lived in the region.
In only 10 quarters of football, Michael Vick seems to have won over more Philadelphia fans than McNabb ever had.
McNabb might be hoping for some cheers when he returns to Washington this coming weekend to face his old team. Michael Vick will be embraced with the enthusiasm of a city drunk on its own potential.
Of course, Vick’s redemption has also implicitly carried with it the shoring up of Andy Reid’s capital with the team and Philadelphia fans everywhere.
Reid’s decision-making was being questioned loudly in all corners of the country in the aftermath of his having given the go-ahead to trade Donovan McNabb to the Washington Redskins—a dubious decision in its own right.
But few are now recalling that, prior to McNabb’s release, Reid himself (with McNabb’s support) was primarily responsible for the Eagles taking on Vick as a backup quarterback project.
In the aftermath of the 2009 season, few Philadelphians—indeed, few football fans anywhere—could perceive the logic behind paying Vick an exorbitant roster bonus and second-year salary just to see him play as a third-string QB.
Vick had hardly proven his worth, having run only a handful of plays and scored a few touchdowns.
But now, Reid’s decision can be viewed not only as savvy in terms of putting the Eagles in a position to have two highly serviceable quarterbacks, but also because Reid helped acquire the veteran’s services at a premium discount.
Reid, though he certainly appeared like a dishonorable man after McNabb’s trade and the way he handled benching former starter Kevin Kolb, now seems to have known what he was doing all along.
At the same time, Vick and Reid’s respective redemptions are predicated on the quarterback’s continued success with the Eagles.
The rumblings will come only so slowly once Vick’s rocket begins to sputter; one can only imagine that Vick will be benched if he falls apart during a game.
In the same way that Kolb was sidelined earlier this season and McNabb was taken out the season before last.
And perhaps this is the most unusual facet of Vick’s redemption—that, more so than any other athlete seeking a return to the limelight—his is based entirely on performance and not persona.
He will long be viewed as a man of unseemly violence, a person who spent the better part of two years in Leavenworth Prison and came out still stinking of shit on the other side.
Almost instinctively, when fans begin speaking about Michael Vick’s resurgence, his detractors react with vehemence and without reference to the fact that the man has made his mea culpa, lost everything in doing so, and had to start again from scratch three decades into his life.
No one wanted to take a chance on him, until McNabb started lobbying on Vick’s behalf to the Eagles brass. McNabb quietly served as Vick’s mentor, teaching him discipline on the field and off. And Vick took to it like a rookie takes to a favorite coach.
But what is fascinating about Vick and his return from the bottommost reaches of the social order is that he is the one athlete in recent history who actually served time for his crimes, acknowledged that he had done wrong, and worked diligently to restore his personhood and not just his image.
Everyone who works with him notes that he is extraordinarily grateful for his second chance, that he has been humbled by his experiences, that he has paid his unknowably sized debts to society by being bankrupted and ruined.
He is the only athlete that I can think of who has atoned for his sins and continues to every day in which he is a free man.
Donte Stallworth killed an actual human being through his own reckless behavior and was suspended and incarcerated for a fraction of the time that Vick was.
Tiger Woods slept with over a dozen women while his wife was pregnant and raising their children but will never be held accountable for his misdeeds.
Even in the court of public opinion, Woods was forgiven within a matter of weeks.
He was cheered at Augusta and Pebble Beach and allowed to play without recrimination at either tournament.
Ben Roethlisberger will be forever able to claim that he has never done anything “illegal” to the various women accusing him of sexual assault—because he wasn’t convicted in a court of law—while never wholly admitting that he did things that were inherently immoral, unethical, or disgusting.
One might argue that Roethlisberger could conceivably have been innocent of the crimes of which he was accused. If he is innocent, then for what reason is he now adopting a pose of contrition, trying to make amends?
The list goes on. We could talk about the domestic violence issues that haunt Mike Tyson’s past or Kobe Bryant’s marital indiscretions.
The athletes’ transgressions have been forgiven and the athletes themselves have been warmly accepted by an adoring public. Tyson has become an unexpected comedy treasure trove.
Bryant might very well win as many championships as Michael Jordan and so is receiving high praise for his dedication to the game. Sports fans have started referring to Ben Roethlisberger by his “Big Ben” moniker again as a show of reacceptance.
Not so for Vick. Years after his indiscretions have stopped, even living a life of moral and social clarity, Michael Vick is still a figure that disturbs and elicits responses of gross negativity.
To the public—to dog owners and animal rights activists especially—Vick owes his pound of flesh. In spite of his contrition. In spite of his efforts to impress upon people that he has changed. In spite of his obvious and consistent efforts to put his past away and start anew.
Of course, to Philadelphia sports fans, a population to whom winning matters most, he is being embraced with a warmth that is almost incomparable for a Philadelphia quarterback.
The true extent of Vick’s acceptance by an apparently supportive team will be seen in the coming weeks when talks of his contract arise.
Can the team conceivably not offer him a contract to match his talents, assuming he continues to play well? Or, alternately, can the team afford to lose him in the face of the uncertainty of having Kolb take the helm?
To ask the moral question that is so often glossed over and left tacitly unanswered, why is a man’s excellence at a particular trade a pardon to his past?
If Vick had simply been a mediocre second-string quarterback, a failed rehabilitation experiment performed in the laboratory of the Philadelphia Eagles training system, no one would kick up any dust on his behalf.
He would simply be another maladjusted football player who cast away his lot in favor of some prodigal activity.
But Vick is good. The man can play. And we American sports fans love excellence above all else.
This conflux of conditions—his redemption being based on his success and his on-the-field success mirroring his financial and personal potential—makes Vick’s story equally fascinating and unnerving.
There will be no pity for Vick if he does not continue to excel with each passing week. Philadelphia fans haven’t developed a reputation for pitiless wrath from a few isolated incidents of booing and jeering.
Fan discontent will make every Vick error seem a calamity. And we will begin to wonder—has Michael Vick changed? Are his itinerant inconsistencies on the football field some kind of reflection of inner turmoil and discontent?
For, as we have already established, Vick’s personal salvation in the public eye is closely linked to his professional achievements.
There is no alternative solution to the extant problems in his life—his financial debts, outstanding legal fees, the burden of his family’s poverty—without football.
Which is to say that even if Vick is free of the burden of his crimes, even if he has paid his dues to society, the work of climbing out of the colossal wreck of his young life will never end.
He will be paying his dues until the end of his career, expressing his gratitude for the time granted him.
When his career is over, in five or ten years, he will fade into obscurity. He is not sports broadcaster material. He is not particularly marketable anymore.
He will return to being a man alone, left to deal with his own issues for the duration of his years. And so, he will play as if his life depends on it, because, ultimately, his entire life does depend on it.
He will run like he never has before; he will pass like he never has before; he will impress like he never has before. Not because he wants to but because he has to. Because he is a man with no recourse.
Because he has seen the depths and has clawed his way back into the sun. At this exact moment, everything about Vick’s life is self-determined. The extent to which he embraces that fact will determine his success.
More than the peers of his who have and have not admitted to their crimes, who have and have not served time, Vick deserves whatever comes his way.
He who was a man set adrift and taken up by a swell of good fortunes now commands his future.
In this, we have an unusual iteration of the American dream. We can but wish him well and hope he continues to impress.