Now that the 2010 season is done for the Philadelphia Eagles, there's time to look back and reflect on what happened. And it bears some reflection. It was a whirlwind season, with so many things happening so fast that it was hard to keep track of it all.
The centerpiece of it all is Michael Vick, one of the most fascinating stories in sports history. The national media has almost uniformly adopted the point of view that he's made a glorious comeback and should be honored. The public seems to be a lot more skeptical. In Philly, it's more complicated for us than it might seem.
For Eagles fans, when it comes right down to it, we can't root against our team. Even if Hannibal Lecter was our quarterback, we might not root for him, but we have to root for the team. We don't have a choice. We bleed green. That's just the way it is.
But, don't be fooled by the pictures you see on TV of "Vickadelphia" signs and little kids wearing his jersey in the stadium. The city is still divided on Vick, and there are still those who think he should never have been on the team. People protest. Callers on local sports radio still talk about the atrocities he committed. And then there are those who embrace him as a warrior, as a supreme talent, and even as a role model.
Vick turned around his public image this season in a way that few ex-con athletes ever have. And the key to it all was his play on the field. It's obvious that his success as a quarterback revolutionized the way people think of him. Is that good or bad? Ultimately, it's good—in his case. It could have been otherwise.
Understand, if Vick hadn't played like a superstar this year, if he was anything less than the electrifying, spine-chillingly brilliant player he was in 2010, the national conversation would be entirely different.
As Chris Rock once said, "If O.J. drove a bus, he'd be 'Orenthal the bus-driving murderer.'" Likewise, if Vick was still the third-string quarterback, he'd be "that guy who got out of jail." Being compared to Tom Brady has a way of changing the flavor.
So, here are the competing arguments.
The Argument Against
On the one hand, there's no reason to forgive the guy personally for what he did. Regardless of how much time he spent in jail, that punishment is only symbolic. It's hard to argue against the assertion that what he did is hard-wired, fundamentally a part of the way he thinks. And the jail sentence was designed by lawyers and judges, not a brilliant psychiatrist. You can't re-wire a man's brain by putting him behind bars for a while.
From that perspective, the fact that he "paid his debt to society" only proves that he deserved to be punished, not that he's respectable. From that perspective, little kids wearing his jersey and cheering for him on Sundays is a disgrace. It's unsettling.
The Argument For
On the other side, his supporters will say that there have been many other athletes who have been accused or convicted of crimes, and most of them have gotten a bigger pass than Vick has. Ray Lewis, Jamal Lewis, Ben Roethlisberger, Gilbert Arenas, Tank Johnson and Pacman Jones are all on that list. Every player we cheer for may have broken some law, and we just haven't heard about it yet.
From that perspective, if Michael Vick has "paid his debt to society," then we've got to give him a chance and see what happens. Maybe he is a changed person. We like to think of our society as one of forgiveness.
But, to be honest, that's kind of a weak argument. I'd like to propose what I think is a better one.
The Argument For Proof
It goes like this: the way he changed his game shows how hard he's willing to work to change himself.
Ever since he got out of jail, Vick has spoken out against his former crimes. He's been giving talks at local high schools. He was on "60 Minutes." He's formed a partnership with animal rights advocates. By all accounts, he's cut off ties with his former friends.
And all that might seem disingenuous to us. Obviously, he has a lot of money to gain by doing those things, and we all might be willing to speak for some cause we don't believe in for even a piece of Vick's paycheck. But, I think that we have proof of how much Vick wants to be a new and better person, and it's on the football field.
When you look at the way Michael Vick played quarterback in Atlanta, he was a one-trick pony. He was a human highlight reel with the ball under one arm, slashing around the field like everyone else was in slow motion—but his passing game was weak at best. There were only a few throws that he could make. Looking at Alge Crumpler's career stats gives some indication.
His cannon arm made it easy to throw touchdown passes, and he had mastered the standard dink-and-dunks, but complexity and cunning were not his strengths. He was no Peyton Manning when it came to picking apart a defense. He was more akin to a running back who could throw.
Now, in Philadelphia, you have an entirely different player. Except when it was appropriate to run, he stayed in the pocket. His touchdown-to-interception ratio, quarterback rating, completion percentage...it was unreal. Part of the credit has to go to superior receivers and a superior coaching staff, of course. But his game speaks for itself now—the proof is there on the field.
And, frankly, that takes a lot of work. It's hard for anyone to become an elite NFL quarterback, and it's hard for any of us to change our habits once we've been good at something for years, had great success, and been told how special we are. Imagine trying to change the way you type on a keyboard, tie your shoes or even hold a pen. Now imagine a blitzing linebacker coming at you, and try not to revert to your old habits.
Rarely do we talk about how plainly and simply difficult it is to be a professional athlete. We tend to talk about them like race horses, as if it's in their genes and foreordained. But, our NFL gladiators get paid millions of dollars to do their jobs because it's not that simple. They wake up early in the morning, undergo excruciating workouts, study film, and then go get pummeled like a sack of potatoes. That deserves some respect on a personal level.
That's the reason why I can see his on-the-field development as proof of his off-the-field development. We'll never know what's in his head, of course. But I'm more willing to take him at his word. When he says he wants to become a mentor to high school kids, I can believe it because I see something tangible. That means something when you're trying to evaluate whether or not you should like a person.
Vick has a lot he could say to a high school kid after his 2010 season. Suck in your pride. Listen to people who are trying to teach you. Don't let your friends tell you what's right and wrong. Think long term. Do the hard work, and the prizes really are there for the taking. It's always worth it to go the extra mile. The first step is the hardest.
Looking at it that way leads to a sobering conclusion.
Maybe it's unfortunate that more ex-convicts don't have the opportunity Michael Vick had to change themselves. Would they go through the work if they had the chance? If they had as many people supporting them and teaching them, would they get better results?
If more ex-convicts had the incentives Vick has to change themselves, would they do what he did? Maybe the salary he's being paid isn't a disgrace, maybe it's proof that we all need something to work for.
Maybe letting him back into the NFL wasn't just bringing a race horse back to the track, or a shrewd financial move by the Eagles—maybe it was a case study in behavior for those of us on the straight and narrow, and a huge public example to those whose lives are more complicated.
Either way, ultimately, everything could change on any given day. One false word could send Vick back to the depths of public disgust. If he says after a game, "They beat us like dogs," his career is over. Done deal.
So, it remains to be seen how long this glorious transformation will last. But I don't think we should discredit the example he has become.
And if there's a better way to reach kids and give them this kind of message, feel free to call it out. But I don't think we've seen one yet.
Honestly, what more can he do? He's done everything we could have ever asked of him.
Michael Vick has shown every sign that he wants to completely forget his former crimes. And he's given us tangible proof that he's willing to work hard and improve himself by his play on the field in 2010. We should congratulate him for that. It may be that any of us, some time in the future, might need an open-minded second chance. We should give one to him today, even if we don't need it for ourselves.