In case of a plea ...
NFL personnel candidly address Vick's future impact
Don Banks ; SI
So much for clearing his good name.
Even without a law degree, I know this much: A plea agreement isn't about clearing your name. It's about saving your bacon. Cutting your losses. And most importantly, reducing the length of time you'll spend in prison.
It's about finding a way to end the fight, in order to have the opportunity to live and, in Michael Vick's case, play another day.
That's what the Falcons quarterback has been trying to accomplish this week in negotiating to plead guilty to the federal charges he was involved in -- that Virginia-based dog-fighting operation that we all know far too much about at this point.
But by going that route, will Vick indeed save his NFL career? In a saga that still has so many unanswered questions, what seems more apparent all the time is that Vick may not be in position to return to the field until 2009, at the age of 29. And that could be his best-case scenario.
If that's surprising, it shouldn't be. Do the math. Logic tells you that his 2007 season is already lost, and the one-year prison term that appears likely to be part of any plea agreement could wind up consuming most or all of 2008. And that's not taking into account how a potential NFL suspension could alter that timetable.
Would a suspension run concurrently with Vick's jail time, or begin after his prison sentence has ended? Would the league allow him back on the field if he were on probation? Would NFL commissioner Roger Goodell throw the book at Vick, handing out a multiyear suspension in response to the gambling element involved in the charges he has pled guilty to?
But if it's 2009 before we again see Vick in a football uniform, when he tries to resurrect a career that came so far off track ... it's difficult to even compare it to any other instance in NFL history, what would his comeback look like? How likely is it that his game would return to its pre-2007 form? And how interested would other teams be in giving him the second chance he covets, should the Falcons part ways with him as most expect?
I put those types of questions to NFL personnel men, general managers, coaches and ex-players this week and received a variety of responses, both on the record and not for attribution. But there was unanimity on some fronts: No one I queried said they could forsee Vick re-starting his career in Atlanta, where the damage to his name and reputation is beyond repair.
"I don't have any inside information to base this on, but he's not going back to Atlanta,'' said former Falcons head coach Jim Mora, now the Seahawks defensive backs coach. "It would be too difficult a situation. By then, the Falcons will have moved on as an organization. It'll take a fresh start for Mike. What's that saying, you can't go home again? I think it applies here.''
The other consensus opinion was that while Vick likely will play again somewhere in the NFL, whoever signs him won't consider him starting quarterback material until he goes through a long process of re-proving himself --both on and off the field. He will have forfeited the benefit of the doubt.
"Whichever team needs another quarterback and decides to take him in '09, its general manager can't go out and get Michael Vick and then say 'I'm putting all my eggs in that basket,''' said one veteran NFL defensive coordinator. "You can't do that. He'll be coming off such a long break, and he'll be such a question mark. I see a lot of people staying away from him.''
League sources I talked to struggled to come up with any comparable situation from the past that could be used to help project how Vick might respond after two years away from the game in the prime of his career. Paul Hornung and Alex Karras served one-year league suspensions for gambling in 1963, but neither played the game's most difficult position -- quarterback. Roger Staubach's NFL career couldn't begin in Dallas until he served a five-year military commitment from 1964-69, but the layoff wasn't mid-career and it wasn't caused by incarceration.
Quarterbacks such as Chris Weinke and Jeff George shook off layers of rust to play again after being away from the game. But in Weinke's case, he returned first to college football after pursuing a pro baseball career for six years, and George served as only a No. 3 quarterback in Seattle (2002) and Chicago (2004) following NFL absences of more than a year.
"There's no blueprint for something like this,'' said Mora, who coached Vick the past three seasons in Atlanta. "No one has any experience with this kind of situation. It's a real wild card. He won't be the same player when he gets back. That won't happen. But given the right situation, he'll still be a great athlete and he can have success again.
"If you're still in your athletic prime, and at 29 he'd still be in that, he'd have a chance if he recommits to the game, and somebody commits to him. But it won't happen overnight. You can't just walk on the field after two years away and be the same guy. And no one's going to hire the guy as a starter after two years off. But someone will definitely give him a chance. It's not like he'll be 37.''
The profile of the team that could take a chance on a Vick comeback after a long layoff seems to fall into one of two categories: Either they'd be a club with a desperate GM or head coach, somebody who needs to win now to keep their job and thus has little to lose in taking the gamble, or it'd take a team that has an owner or head coach whose status makes their decision-making relatively bulletproof.
"If you have nothing to lose because you're on the hot seat anyway, kind of like the way Jon Gruden collected quarterbacks in Tampa Bay this year, I could see somebody taking a chance on Vick,'' the veteran defensive coordinator said. "The other case is, if you're so insulated in your situation, where you're not going to get criticized, then you might go for it, too. The way an Al Davis or a Jerry Jones doesn't have to answer to anyone, or even a coach like Bill Belichick. He could do it, because he's got that Super Bowl track record.
"If you're not in one of those situations, I don't know if I'm trusting that Michael Vick is the guy to get me over the hump. Some teams couldn't do it just on principle. They wouldn't take the guy for any reason. Dan Rooney in Pittsburgh, the Giants when Wellington Mara was alive, you think they're going to take Vick? They're going to say, 'No way do we want that guy. With his baggage, and where he's been.'''
Titans offensive coordinator Norm Chow said Vick would face a tough re-acclimation to the NFL. The only comparison he could make was when he coached at BYU and had quarterbacks who left the football program in order to fulfill their two-year Mormon missionary service. None of them ever returned to play quarterback, he said.
"I don't think you lose it in a year, but now, two years?'' Chow said. "Oh, boy, that's a long time. If you have the physical tools, they don't go away in a year or two. And he's so athletically talented. But it's more the mental part of playing quarterback in the NFL. It would take some time to come back to him. If he's out of it for two years, then it might take him two years and nine months to really get it back.''
I found a wide difference of opinion among league personnel evaluators whether Vick's running-quarterback style of play would help or hurt him in his effort to mount an NFL comeback after two years removed from the game.
"The way Michael Vick plays football, to be way behind from a playbook sense, that's not that important to his game in the first place,'' said a longtime pro personnel man. "So, it'll hurt him less than it would most other quarterbacks. That's why his game won't be cooked. His game is arm strength, his speed and his elusiveness. He's such a rare talent that I think he'll be able to rebound. It's just a matter of who's willing to roll the dice with him?
"That team has to decide to build its offense around his style of game, and not everybody will be willing to do that. And No. 2, some team has to be willing to take the public relations hit of having him. And not everybody will want to do that, either.''
But given Vick's free-wheeling, improvisational style of playing quarterback, not having him immersed in the game during such a long layoff, or under the protective shelter of an NFL organization could be very damaging, other league sources say.
"You have to remember, he's going to be in prison,'' the veteran defensive coordinator said. "He's not going to be at somebody's team facility, going to meetings, staying involved, staying on top of things with coaches. He's going to be completely away from the game. At the quarterback position, that's very risky.
"Vick is known throughout the league already as a notoriously light worker. He's a natural ability freak. It'll be harder for him the longer he's away. He might be playing basketball in prison, stuff like that. But I think it's going to be an uphill climb for him to get back in the NFL. Maybe you take him as backup QB, or a gimmick player. But with him, you're not even sure how good a backup he'd be. Some guys have to be either starters, or you don't want them on the team.''
Former Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason scoffs at the notion that anyone could speculate where Vick's game might be following a long layoff. There are no parallels to draw on in the game's history, he said, so predicting how Vick's saga will play out long term is fruitless.
"I think this is unprecedented in league history,'' Esiason told me Thursday. "Given the stature of the player we're talking about, and the size of the contract he has -- $130 million -- and how he was promoted by the league, with all his endorsements, this is the biggest fiasco in the history of the game. I still don't think people realize the scope of how big this is. This is a huge story. It's the league's ultimate PR nightmare.''
At best, Vick will latch on with someone in the NFL at a bottom rung and be forced to work his way back up, Esiason said.
"Who's going to want him, and how much money are they going to pay him after all this?'' he said. "Maybe somebody tries to get him on the cheap. I certainly don't think he'll ever be in an Atlanta Falcons uniform again. He must just be stunned that it's come to this point, but he's done it to himself.
"We're assuming he'll be in good football shape and a good state of mind (for a comeback) and have the skills of the player we've seen so far. But you just don't know what you're getting at that point. I'm not sure where all of this is going to end. All I know is it's only going to get worse before it gets better.''
One respected NFL club personnel man I talked to questioned why any team would jump at the chance to add Vick to their roster, even if his absence from the game winds up being less than two full seasons. In spirited language, he wondered why there's such debate over Vick's playing fate?
"I have never been impressed with Michael Vick to begin with,'' the club personnel man said. "Is he a dynamic player? Yes. But is he a championship-level quarterback, a leader of a team? He has never shown that. So what are you really getting once he comes back? What has Michael Vick done in this league other than be promoted by the league and by his marketing people and the companies that he has endorsed for?
"I can't answer what he might be facing in two years, because I don't know that I value what he is as a quarterback. If he's going to be your backup quarterback, one of the problems is that he can't be so completely different in terms of your starter's skill set. That was tough for Atlanta to deal with in the case of Vick and Matt Schaub. You have to change your offense depending on who's playing.''
Before he would let our conversation end, the veteran personnel evaluator made one more point, and said it was something he thought a lot of people within NFL circles have felt as Vick's long, sordid dog-fighting saga has played out the past four months.
"I don't know what's going to happen to Michael Vick, and I don't care,'' he said, slowly and with emphasis. "The guy has embarrassed the NFL and embarrassed the game that a lot of us care about greatly. He's not worth any more time and energy and attention. It's his problem now.''
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