Analysis  

 

Michael Vick enters free agency as a fascinating NFL case study

Michael Vick spent part of Super Bowl week making the media rounds, essentially becoming a pitchman for a product that might've increased in value through relative dormancy.

Vick, who turns 34 in June, remains one of the NFL's most compelling figures, a precursor to the dual-threat quarterbacks who now captivate talent evaluators, and a litmus test for the league's -- and its fans' -- capacity to tolerate and forgive transgressions. And very soon, he will be something else: a free agent, likely the most interesting one of the offseason.

Vick wants to be a starter, and because of how he handled his final season in Philadelphia -- when he was playing out his contract, when he lost his starting job -- his time on the bench probably won't hurt him in that pursuit. One NFL personnel executive said teams undoubtedly will rate Vick the best of a middling quarterback free-agent market -- one likely to include Matt Schaub, Matt Cassel and Mark Sanchez -- and the exec said he would rate him as a mid-tier starting quarterback, somewhere between 13 and 16. In a league with 32 teams, that's better than half.

"There are too many teams that are in need of an upgrade for him not to be looked at as a starter," the personnel executive said. "I could see a team signing him, and developing a young guy. Vick could be a very good bridge starter for two to three years."

And that, despite his advancing age, is a remarkable improvement from where Vick was the last time he hit free agency.

When Vick re-entered the league four and a half years ago, after serving 18 months in prison for his role in a dogfighting operation, he was a pariah who also became part of a social experiment: Could a professional sports team weave rehabilitation together with winning? The results were mixed, with the success of Jeffrey Lurie and Andy Reid's grand bargain framed by the prism through which it was viewed. They won ... some of the time.

There were glimpses of the greatness that first seduced the Atlanta Falcons and eventually led to a gigantic contract extension from the Eagles. But big picture? His twin football liabilities -- injuries and turnovers -- continued to bedevil Vick and, in turn, the Eagles. They did not win on a grand scale, and ultimately Vick's weaknesses led to the team's downward spiral under Reid, ushering in Chip Kelly, who eventually chose Nick Foles over Vick.

But that really was not the biggest picture for Vick, of course. President Barack Obama did not call the Eagles to congratulate them for merely signing a signal-caller; he called because Vick had become a symbol of a person in desperate need of a second chance. In that respect, it worked: Vick was a joy to have around, Lurie has remarked, and the quarterback repaid the Eagles this season for the risk they took with him. And this is why his résumé will be enhanced among those willing to take a chance on him this spring.

It happened long before Vick and Foles stood shoulder to shoulder at a joint October press conference -- unheard of in a scenario where the two participants are competing for one job. That piece of theater merely underscored what people around the Eagles had been saying for a while: Vick had become an important locker room presence, a mature, steady mentor whose support of and friendship with Foles was unfailing, even as it became obvious that Foles was taking Vick's job for good.

But it was back in training camp when Vick made perhaps the biggest impact on the season by publicly and privately forgiving Riley Cooper after his widely covered usage of a racial slur. At the time the video of Cooper surfaced, it seemed unlikely that he could remain with the team without splitting open the locker room. But Vick, in linking Cooper's need for support and forgiveness with his own, threw a figurative arm around Cooper, sending a signal to teammates that it was acceptable to allow Cooper to work his way back. It echoed what Donovan McNabb did, when he lobbied the Eagles to sign Vick after he was released from prison and, like Vick, Cooper took the opportunity to redeem himself. He became the No. 2 receiver on the league's fourth-highest scoring offense.

Now it is time for Vick to move on, putting an end to a surreal stint in Philadelphia. If this remains something short of a feel-good story for people who still cannot square the smiling, polite player they see now with the heinous actions of his past, then it is a simple one about Vick rebuilding his career and professional reputation when offered a lifeline. It seems likely that wherever he goes, Vick will be asked to at least compete for the starting job, rather than be handed it. But the expectation of two league executives is that Vick -- who still possesses the strong arm and much of the speed that dazzled the league long before his reputation was sullied by the gruesome details of dogfighting -- will emerge as a starter next season, especially because there are three, maybe four, quarterbacks who are currently considered sure first-rounders in the 2014 NFL Draft.

"From a supply and demand side, there just aren't enough to go around," the personnel executive said.

There weren't back in 2009, either, when a minor injury to then-backup Kevin Kolb led the Eagles to their stunning signing of Vick, after they had earlier said they were not interested. On the summer day when Vick was reintroduced to the NFL, Lurie spoke in harsh, blunt language to express his disgust at the crimes Vick had committed, and about the disgrace he had brought upon the NFL. A small clutch of protestors stood outside the gates of the Eagles' facility and local sports radio was awash in often-heated reactions from fans. Reid, though, said then he was moved by the second chances offered to his own troubled sons.

"There is no room for error," Lurie said that day. "There is no third chance. If it isn't fulfilled the way we expect it to be, that will be the end."

The end has come in Philadelphia. But there was no error. Not in the motivation of the Eagles or in the completion by Vick. And Vick will get his third chance, after all.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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