Friday, August 24th 2007, 4:00 AM
There are probably more than a few National Football League executives hoping that, on Monday, the scent of closure begins deodorizing the stench of a nauseating story after Michael Vick enters an expected guilty plea to dogfighting charges.
After Vick walks out of a Virginia courthouse, it will be good-bye, good riddance. The loyal legion of NFL fans who focus on the game, no matter how many dirtbags are paid millions to play it, can begin looking forward to the regular season, right?
The Vick story will linger throughout the season. The fire will burn. Monday night gas will be poured on it. A few hours after Vick's court appearance, on ESPN's "Monday Night Football," the Vick-less Atlanta Falcons will entertain the Cincinnati Bengals - a team whose anthem should be "Jailhouse Rock" - in a preseason tilt.
When the NFL schedule makers parceled out preseason games to their network TV partners, they decided ESPN was the place to present a matchup of marquee quarterbacks - Vick and Carson Palmer. They had no idea they were were scripting a nightmare.
It is unlikely commissioner Roger Goodell and Co. are giddy over the prospect of ESPN airing three hours of Atlanta Falcons football the same day Vick cops a plea.
The fact it's a preseason game makes the situation worse. Does anyone think Mike Tirico, Ron Jaworski and Tony Kornheiser are going to spend the evening talking about some backup Falcons tackle who may become a starter? Or the pressure falling on Vick's replacement, Joey Harrington? Or their prediction of when the next Bengal gets busted?
Please. This should be a Vick-centric telecast. ESPN, through its "SportsCenter" and "Outside the Lines," has been out front on the story. Monday is no time to retreat. The circumstances are tailor-made for Kornheiser's pointed opinions.
How will the fans at the Georgia Dome react? Reports coming out of Atlanta indicate Vick has his share of supporters there. Will they show up at the stadium Monday night? Will representatives from PETA be in attendance? This all could make for some emotional camera shots.
ESPN will get a higher-than-normal rating for this preseason game. ESPN's "MNF" telecast will be the place to land for those who want more coverage of the day Vick officially goes down.
Where does the story go from there? And how do the NFL's TV partners (Fox, NBC, CBS, ESPN, NFL Network) cover it? One network suit said by the time the regular season opens, Vick's case will be "closed." Technically, yes. Still, no one knows what twists and turns are coming.
The Vick saga, and to some extent the story of Pacman Jones, have been ingrained in the public consciousness. With Homeland Security Chief Goodell looking to clamp down on the league's miscreants, the threat by the league's criminal subculture has been elevated to "Level Red." It's part of everyday conversation when discussing the NFL.
For the NFL's network TV partners, the tendency has always been to pooh-pooh, gloss over, or totally ignore untoward incidents or deviant behavior.
It's hard to forget CBS Sports' coverage of the January 2006 Steelers-Colts playoff game. On the eve of the contest, Indy cornerback Nick Harper was stabbed in the right knee, allegedly by his wife. But in the first quarter, play-by-play man Dick Enberg said Harper would start despite having three stitches in his thigh "suffered in an accident yesterday."
Now, it will be difficult to go ostrich on any off-field incidents.
Last Dec.17, on Fox's "NFL Sunday" before Eagles-Giants, Joe Buck said that when the Bears' Tank Johnson was in college, "several" teams took him off their draft boards because he tested positive for drugs "while also training dogs to kill."
"Is this for real? Seriously?" Howie Long asked. "Are we doing 'Hard Copy' now? Training dogs to kill what?"
In NFL TV Land, times certainly have changed.
Show me a good loser, and I'll show you a loser.
"None are so old as those who have outlived enthusiasm".
Henry David Thoreau
Fail to prepare and you prepare to fail.
"Luck is the residue of design." - Branch Rickey