PHILADELPHIA -- I love dogs. I love watching puppies discover all of the newness around them, such as flies buzzing in front of their nose and the sounds a house makes from the wind. I love watching older dogs that want nothing to do with a rambunctious pup and sprawl on a rug a few feet from where their owner sits writing on his laptop.
So it was quite natural for me to hate all of the repulsive things that Michael Vick did to dogs to end up behind bars for nearly two years.
Recently, I had my first face-to-face conversation with Vick since 2007, when he pled guilty to federal dogfighting charges. I'll admit, it was awkward, trying to separate personal feelings from professional duty. I struggled to look beyond the man whose actions I reviled and make an effort to get to know the one who seems to be trying -- really trying -- to reform his life and resurrect his NFL career.
Even without my explaining as much, Vick clearly got the drift.
Kolb still in McNabb's shadow
"I think it still registers in the back of people's minds," he said of his troubled past. "I don't think it's ever going to go away."
Vick was still wearing his Philadelphia Eagles practice uniform, which made it easier to view him as more of a player than some sort of a monster. He had just finished taking part in one of the team's offseason workouts, which conclude this week. He was looking and sounding upbeat, like someone who knew he was making progress toward some fairly lofty goals.
Vick appears to have come a long way since 2009, when the Eagles gave him his second chance in the NFL. Back then, he was in the type of shape you'd expect an athlete who had spent about two years in jail to be in: Bad. He didn't know the Eagles' version of the West Coast offense. He saw little of the field behind Donovan McNabb and Kevin Kolb. He was a far cry from the game-changing force he had been as a runner and a thrower during six seasons with the Atlanta Falcons.
Now, less than three weeks from his 30th birthday, Vick is in tremendous physical condition. He also has a better handle on the Eagles' scheme, which is particularly important with McNabb having been shipped to Washington and the inexperienced Kolb moving to the No. 1 spot.
Marty Mornhinweg, the Eagles' assistant head coach/offensive coordinator, saw this coming a year ago as he watched the extra work Vick put in before and after practice. About three quarters of the way through last season, the coach knew that Vick was "pretty close to (a) hundred percent" with his speed and athleticism. Since offseason workouts began, Vick has proven to Mornhinweg that he is totally there.
"Man alive, he has really demonstrated some of that dynamic ability that he has," Mornhinweg said. "He's still got it … that quickness and those natural instincts to escape and make a move on a defender and throw the ball down the field. He's got all that back. Now, he's trying to play that quarterback position at a high level -- (getting) all of the quarterback techniques and fundamentals and training himself on his progressions and his reads, his secondary reads and all of that. I'm excited to see him play in the preseason because I think he's going to be dynamite."
None of this comes as a surprise to Vick, because he won't hesitate to tell you that he knows he is a "pretty good" player. He quickly adds that his high opinion of what he is capable of doing on a football field reflects confidence rather than arrogance.
"I know what I can do," Vick said. "I know how dangerous I am."
It can't be easy. Vick has made 68 career starts to Kolb's two. Vick has every reason to believe he should be the starter, especially now that he has recaptured the physical ability to do so and feels enough comfort with the playbook that he's able to do less thinking and more reacting.
"It's tough, holstering everything, knowing that you have that ability," Vick said. "But at the same time, I'm blessed with (talent). It's not going anywhere. The thing I try to do to maintain focus is to understand that, at some point, I will get an opportunity to play and be a starter again. Now it's just about honing my skills and getting myself physically and mentally prepared, and just taking care of my body."
Besides, he and Kolb share a strong mutual respect and get along well. They golf together. They train together.
"Listen, Michael's going to start in this league," Reid said. "Prior to being incarcerated, you're talking about one of the top quarterbacks in the National Football League, so I don't think he's forgotten how to play the game. It was just a matter of kind of getting back in the swing of things. I think he's back in the swing now. I think he can help a lot of football teams win games and compete for championships. Great quarterbacks are hard to find in this league, and I consider him one of those."
Given that the Eagles paid Vick a $1.5 million roster bonus and he's due to make $5.25 million this year, they could be inclined to hang onto him at least for one more season. But with the potential of another club becoming desperate enough for a starting quarterback to make the Eagles an attractive trade offer, it's possible that Vick could be elsewhere by September or even August.
"Right now I'm thinking I'm going to be a Philadelphia Eagle," Vick said. "This is where I want to be. I'm comfortable here, my family's comfortable here. But God may have other plans, and depending on what happens, you never know."
No matter where he ends up, Vick will always have his ugly past in tow. Reid, for one, is impressed with the way Vick has handled himself since joining the Eagles. Granted, for the sake of trade value, it makes perfect sense for him and everyone else in the organization to talk up Vick's progress on and off the field as much as possible.
Yet, as someone with two sons who ran afoul of the law, the coach isn't one to take the rehabilitation process lightly.
"I think he made a mistake and he admitted it," Reid said of Vick. "We all make mistakes and his was under the microscope a little bit. And it was a severe mistake. But he has done everything possible to right that wrong, and I think he's just handled himself like a quality person here doing this. It doesn't take long, being around him, to kind of know what he's about, and he is a good person."
Vick is realistic enough to understand that it will take time for him to get the public at large to feel the same way.
But he won't stop trying.
"I've been doing everything I can to try to make amends and do all the right things ... just show people that you can turn your life around and do things the right way," Vick said. "That's my goal. I feel like I'm obligated to that. I feel like I owe it to a lot of kids out there in this world to share my knowledge and wisdom and understanding of what it takes to keep yourself in a positive situation, in a positive environment, and making good judgment at the end of the day. So, hopefully, they'll be receptive to that, and I think they will be."
Jets are going airborne
» Thomas Jones, the leading rusher on the NFL's No. 1 rushing offense, is gone. The most prominent newcomer in the backfield, LaDainian Tomlinson, is a more effective threat as a receiver than a rusher at this late stage of his career.
» By all accounts, quarterback Mark Sanchez has shown excellent progress in rehabilitation from knee surgery and, in his second season, is likely to be trusted to carry a larger load of the offense.
Now comes this nugget: Jets coach Rex Ryan telling reporters that he thinks tight end Dustin Keller can have a greater impact as a receiver, particularly when it comes to catching touchdowns, as defenses focus attention on covering the team's receivers and put a safety or linebacker on Keller. Ryan says he can envision the Jets exploiting such mismatches the way the Indianapolis Colts do with their tight end, Dallas Clark.
It's a bit of a stretch to mention Keller, who caught 45 passes for 522 yards and two touchdowns last season (a slight decline from the 48 receptions for 535 yards and three scores he had as a rookie in 2008), and Clark in the same sentence. However, the Jets are planning to do their share to give Keller a larger role in the offense by increasing the number of option routes he runs from the slot. That's the way the Colts often utilize Clark, who is far more of a receiver than a true tight end.
Despite their success on the ground last season and Ryan's defensive-oriented mentality that would figure to favor a more conservative offensive approach, the Jets fully understand they are in a pass-first league and that they must keep pace with the competition if they're to take the next step.