The Ravens have been down this road before, albeit with a player whose criminal acts took place while actually under contract with the team.
After being charged with murder and aggravated assault in the slaying of two men outside of an Atlanta-area nightclub in late January 2000, Ray Lewis' football career hung in the balance. Perhaps the greatest middle linebacker to ever play the game nearly never was.
After being acquitted of the crime, via a guilty plea to a misdemeanor charge, Lewis returned to his Ravens teammates a seemingly changed, inspired, motivated man. Gone were the hangers-on that plagued him and likely placed him in the cross-hairs of federal prosecutors to begin with. So too was the previous incarnation of a girl-chasing Lewis, once regarded as immature and a bit rough around the edges.
In the run up to what turned out to be the franchise’s first Super Bowl championship, Ray Lewis 2.0 became the motivational impetus for a defense that proved to be one of the best the National Football League had ever seen.
That Lewis-led defense was a historically elite unit, one that punished ball-carriers, harassed quarterbacks, and scored touchdowns themselves, even when their offense could not.
That year, the Ravens' offense failed to at one stage so much as sniff the end zone for five-straight weeks, a fact that highlights how truly dominant that defense was. They’d go on to set the all-time record for fewest total points allowed in a season, a campaign that culminated in Tampa with Lewis winning Super Bowl Most Valuable Player honors in a dominating win over the New York Giants.
Fast forward nine years to today, where Michael Vick now emerges from the shadows of the federal prison he called home in Leavenworth, Kan., and begins to put the pieces of his shattered life back together, in an attempt to redeem himself much in the way Lewis did.
Vick still must be reinstated by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who plans to meet with the crestfallen former No. 1 pick. The onus will be on Vick to prove to the head of the most popular sports league in the United States that he is remorseful and ready to atone, but most feel confident that Vick’s reinstatement is more a matter of when, not if—that he's paid his dues.
Which begs the unavoidable question: Which franchise has what it takes to bring on such a controversial figure, a man whose littered history essentially includes the funding of animal cruelty for entertainment?
I’d argue the Ravens are perhaps the franchise best-prepared for what Vick brings to the table, and in some ways on the field, might actually need him.
There are some things to consider:
First, the Ravens are widely regarded as one of the most sound and well-run organizations in the NFL, from owner Steve Bisciotti and General Manager Ozzie Newsome on down. Unlike a lot of rumored Vick suitors, namely Minnesota, Oakland and San Francisco, Baltimore has the infrastructure in place to, to some degree, insulate Vick from the media-storm sure to follow him, and the protesters that are sure to be picketing his employment in lieu of his crimes.
No matter where he ends up, there is sure to be a media and animal rights firestorm that follows. But the Ravens are experts at handling this type of situation—again, they've been down this road before.
The team and Vick would mutually benefit from having Lewis as a resource as well, a player who has walked in Vick’s shoes before. Perhaps the league’s best leader and twice recognized as its best defender, Lewis has long-since developed into a personality that is totally at ease handling the spotlight, and he would do a terrific job deflecting attention away from Vick in the media. And Lewis's value would likely extend to guiding Vick as a man, behind closed doors, much in the way he is known for guiding the franchise's younger players into the league.
Lewis’ example is the perfect template for redemption for Vick, from his meticulous on-field preparation to his palpable impact in the community. And in Baltimore City, there is plenty of work to be done, no doubt.
And speaking of how this would all affect the Ravens in between the white lines, I see Vick as an ideal fit in Baltimore under the guidelines of a one-year contract. Vick has a ton to prove, to himself, to the league, to NFL fans, and to the general public who continue to be awed by the heinous nature of his crimes—and to that end, a motivated player is definitely valuable to any franchise, much in the way you would expect a player’s performance to spike in their specific contract year.
Vick is perhaps the most gifted athlete this league has ever seen, and is unquestionably dangerous in the open field. He possesses elite speed and arm strength, and he is the definition of a playmaker, though likely one miscast as a quarterback.
For a Ravens team one win shy of the Super Bowl in 2008, and an offense that seems to only lack that explosive, difference-making skill position player that separates good offenses from great ones, Vick might just fit the bill. Not as the full-time quarterback he once was, but instead as a situational weapon to add to a team's offensive arsenal—a player defenses must account for.
And consider Ravens' offensive coordinator Cam Cameron’s creativity: What could he do with a talent like Vick?
At varying points in the 2008 season, Cameron tasked Joe Flacco with catching passes, ran the option with Flacco and backup quarterback Troy Smith, had mammoth defensive tackle Haloti Ngata lined up as tight end and as a lead-blocker, set up receiver Mark Clayton for throwing passes down field, and employed an “Elephant” package that featured an unbalanced line and a fullback as a ball carrier.
With a young quarterback with surprising mobility and one of the league’s best young offensive line’s at his disposal, what Vick could offer as a receiver, running back, a situational passer, and as a decoy, might single-handedly scare defenses into submission. At the least, it would keep them on their heels for the extra split second that makes big plays happen.
That’s not to say the Ravens should blindly sign Vick—financing a dog-fighting ring is fundamentally immoral and abhorrent, and it will be Vick’s obligation to prove he’s self-motivated to make lifestyle sacrifices, personal changes, and ultimately a difference in the aftermath of his utterly terrible decision-making.
No matter how you slice this one, so much as entertaining the notion of signing Vick is inviting sizable risk.
But the Ravens should consider him, work him out, and put him through the same aggressive question-and-answer session Roger Goodell most certainly soon will. If the Ravens are scared off, it’s likely 31 other NFL teams will be too. Since Lewis’ ordeal in Atlanta, the Ravens have shown a steadfast deference to the character of the players they acquire, and if Vick is simply a “bad dude”, they’d sniff him out in a heartbeat and wouldn’t sign him.
Once the most prominent name in the NFL, Vick and his professional football future now rest squarely at the mercy of the league’s decision-makers, and the scrutiny of his personality, humility, and morality might make some political observers blush.
But if he checks out, the Ravens can offer Vick exactly what they offered Lewis: A chance at personal redemption and an opportunity to improve the quality of his life and the lives of others.
Vick can offer the Ravens something, too: The inside track to the Super Bowl.