NFL Managing Vick's Return for the Sake of Its Image

By Michael Wilbon
Tuesday, July 28, 2009; 12:35 AM

Roger Goodell would like you to think he reinstated Michael Vick immediately. It was a really, really smart move tactically to announce Vick may participate "without delay" in practices, workouts and meetings, and he can even play in his new team's final two preseason games. The NFL, the best ever when it comes to shaping perception, wants those of us who feel Vick has been punished enough already to think Vick isn't being punished any further.

But the league is absolutely punishing Vick further by not allowing him back onto the field until Week 6 of the upcoming season. Two years of jail apparently wasn't a big enough hit for the NFL, whose laws evidently supersede the laws of the land. So the NFL has instituted a transition program, which includes Vick being mentored by Tony Dungy and monitored by Commissioner Goodell, which both seem reasonable even if totally paternalistic.

The NFL, understandably, is letting Vick back in with the understanding he is on -- dare I say this -- a very short leash. No legal slipups. No bad associations. No drug or alcohol use, no possessing a firearm or other dangerous weapon. And Vick certainly cannot own a dog. He has to work with the Humane Society and has to have a formal mentoring relationship with Dungy and other advisers who will help oversee his life and his reentry into professional football.

Vick, if you believe all the statement he released, said he is "grateful" for the opportunity to re-enter the league under any terms or conditions. Vick should be grateful. And no doubt all this was agreed upon before Goodell announced Vick can return.

But I also believe the reactions from people close to the Vick case that they are outraged the NFL would pile on by suspending Vick for four to five more games after doing 19 months in jail and a couple of more in home confinement. Vick, I too believe, has done enough time. I might be inclined to see the NFL's point if the league was as nearly as tough on abuse of women and vehicular deaths that result from drunk driving, but historically it simply hasn't been.

I'm not asking for leniency for Vick; in fact if I were Goodell, I'd be standing on a zero-tolerance policy. If Vick screwed up two weeks into his reinstatement, throw him out. As the commissioner said Monday, everyone who is part of the league should be "held to a standard of conduct higher than that generally expected in society and is correspondingly accountable when that standard of conduct is not met . . . Needless to say, your margin for error is extremely limited. I urge you to take full advantage of the resources available to support you and to dedicate yourself to rebuilding your life and your career . . . "

With that in mind, Vick should have been fully reinstated immediately, with the understanding that if he goofs up again he's gone, done, suspended indefinitely and perhaps for good. But this approach of "Be ready by Week 6" smacks of pandering to the whims of animal rights lobbyists and public relations folks gone wild.

No league is as effective as the NFL at image control. And part of this suspension, by whatever name, surely has to do with the NFL not wanting Vick to be the No. 1 story of Week 1.

The opening week of the NFL season is now treated like the week leading up to Christmas. And the obsession with Vick's return would be far too big a "distraction," to use the word the NFL hates most. The league wants feel-good talk of matchups and new coaches and promising rookies dominating the weeks leading up to the season opener -- not talk of the return of a dog-killing convicted felon.

So, rather than have that agenda interrupted, the NFL just moved Vick to the back burner. He'll play -- but damn if it's going to allow his name on the marquee to start the season.

Personally, if Vick does everything he is supposed to do, at least to Goodell's satisfaction, it wouldn't surprise me to see him apply for an earlier reinstatement, by, say, Week 3. By then, the league would have gotten through the first two weeks, and Vick would have bowed appropriately to the league's powers-that-be, which is a requisite action in pro football, where players have so much less influence on the game and the market for it than owners and coaches.

Now that Vick is back, sort of, the speculation will move to where he'll play. Since there are 32 teams, 32 coaches would like to have him. He won't have forgotten how to play in two years and will be healthier than at any time since high school, and his skills are perfectly suited to this Wildcat offense that didn't exist in today's form when Vick last played.

At least 30 GMs will want him. The question is, how many owners will think he can play in the community where that team lives, and how many are bold enough or charismatic enough to sell having him?

Raiders? Check. Dolphins? Check (Though Miami drafted Pat White out of West Virginia to do what Vick does). Patriots? Check. Redskins? Check.

The Redskins don't need a QB, you say? That didn't stop Daniel Snyder and Vinny Cerrato from drooling over Mark Sanchez and Jay Cutler during the offseason. The Redskins franchise is as local as Vick, who played at Virginia Tech, can get. It's going to be a more sympathetic place for a number of reasons, including the fact there's a huge black population/fan base, much of which thinks Vick's punishment was excessive.

The bet here is there are at least a half-dozen owners in the league who could swallow hard and take Vick in. They now know the terms of his reinstatement -- make that suspension -- and just how soon he might be able to help achieve the only thing owners, coaches, GMs and fan bases care about anyway: winning.

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