Dan Reeves did extensive research on Michael Vick before making the trade with the Chargers that altered the course of history.
He studied the background check compiled by the NFL. He joined the Falcons in their own investigation, speaking to Vick's college and high school coaches and meeting the quarterback face-to-face. Then Reeves completed the deal the night before the 2001 draft, moving up to the leadoff spot to get the prized QB.
Were there red flags on Vick's character? "None whatsoever," Reeves said from his Atlanta home. "We brought him in, talked to him. He was very personable. A great personality. At the time we brought him in, I didn't know we would get him. I didn't know if we would be able to make a deal with San Diego."
It turned out to be one of the most important trades in NFL history. Vick has turned from the face to the disgrace of the NFL. The Chargers took running back LaDainian Tomlinson, who has developed into the best player in the league.
There is much anguish in Reeves' voice as he talks about Vick, who he had hoped would do for the Falcons what John Elway did for the Broncos. Instead of going to the Super Bowl, however, Vick is going to jail. He will plead guilty tomorrow in Richmond, Va., to a felony for his role in a dogfighting ring, and likely faces 12 to 18 months in prison. He has been suspended indefinitely by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. The earliest projection for a return to the league is 2010.
Reeves not only had no suspicion Vick was involved in dogfighting, but the former coach said he never even had heard of dogfighting in his 39 years in the NFL. All he knew was that several of his players loved pit bulls as pets. "It's like a member of your family doing something wrong and being punished for it," Reeves said. "It hurts. I feel badly for him, but he's just got to live one day at a time, in my opinion. He must admit what he has done is wrong and learn from it and move on. It's a tragedy."
Reeves felt much differently 18 hours before the '01 draft. Six years ago, both teams needed a quarterback. The Falcons had Chris Chandler. He had helped them get to the Super Bowl three years earlier, but Reeves knew he was at the tail end of his career. Meanwhile, the Chargers had just hired John Butler as their general manager and A.J. Smith as assistant GM. They came from Buffalo, where the Bills made it to four straight Super Bowls in the early '90s.
They had future Hall of Famer Jim Kelly at quarterback in Buffalo, but knew that without running back Thurman Thomas, inducted into Canton earlier this month, their no-huddle offense would not have been nearly as explosive. "We had no players," Smith said from his San Diego office. "So we said if we get multiple picks, if we get a package, this is what we would do. We would have taken (Vick) if we had not gotten an attractive package."
The Chargers waited for the phone to ring. Atlanta called. Nobody else. "They were the only player," Smith said.
San Diego's quarterbacks in 2000 were Ryan Leaf, Jim Harbaugh and Moses Moreno. It seemed a virtual certainty until the days before the draft that the Chargers would take the electric QB.
"Vick was the selection unless we got something we wanted," said Smith, who took over as the Chargers GM after Butler died of lung cancer in 2003.
The Falcons were picking fifth. Perhaps the first indication the Chargers were not going to take Vick came when they signed Doug Flutie, a favorite of Butler and Smith in Buffalo. Flutie was not known as a willing mentor to young quarterbacks.
On the Wednesday before the draft, the Chargers gave the Falcons permission to open contract negotiations with Vick. An agreement in principle was reached by the time the trade was announced two days later.
There were rumors the Chargers were not sold on Vick as a player. Smith agrees with Reeves: there were no behavioral concerns about Vick.
Atlanta offered to swap No. 1s and add its No. 3 that year and No. 2 the following year. The Chargers wanted the No. 2 immediately, plus wide receiver/kick returner Tim Dwight. The Falcons wouldn't budge on the pick, but when Butler told Reeves the deal was dead without Dwight, he gave in because he felt Dwight soon would be leaving as a free agent.
Once the trade was made, the Chargers had to sweat out Tomlinson making it to No. 5. "Obviously, it worked out," Smith said.
Arizona took offensive lineman Leonard Davis. Cleveland took defensive tackle Gerard Warren and Cincinnati selected defensive end Justin Smith.
That left Tomlinson for Butler and Smith. "I didn't jump up and say we got the best end of that deal," Reeves said. "They got a heckuva lot for him."
Tomlinson has rushed for 9,176 yards in six seasons and last year set the record for TDs with 31. At the time of the draft, teams compared him to Emmitt Smith, the all-time rushing leader. He could be better.
"We drafted who we felt could be a championship level player," Smith said. "This Hall of Fame stuff is a bonus."
Reeves looked at Vick's athletic ability, incredible speed and strong arm and figured as he improved throwing the ball, he would be impossible to stop. In his second season Vick beat the Packers in the playoffs - the first home playoff loss in Green Bay history. Vick took the Falcons to the NFC title game in 2004 - one year after Reeves was fired.
"We needed a quarterback," Reeves said. "There was no question he was going to be a great quarterback."
Reeves believes the Chargers made the deal only because they were still reeling from the Leaf debacle. Taken second overall in 1998, Leaf turned into one of the league's all-time busts.
But Smith vehemently denies Leaf entered into their thinking. "Why the hell do I care about Ryan Leaf?" he said. "I wasn't here. If it was the same administration, that would make sense to me."
Now all Reeves can do is wonder what went wrong. On Friday, Vick admitted he became involved in dogfighting "in or about early 2001," the year Reeves drafted him.
"I can't imagine Mike doing something like that. I really can't," Reeves said. "It's so beyond the kind of person I think Mike was.
Whether it was associations . . . I can't imagine him doing those things with a right mind."
When the scandal broke, Reeves spoke to Vick to let him know he was there for him. They have not spoken since. "Mike needs people now to help him get through this," he said. "I certainly would be willing to help him in any way I could. If he asked me, I would. It can't be much worse for him than it is right now
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