Tough Landing Spot for Vick
There will be nothing gradual or below-the-radar about Michael Vick's return to professional football. There's no tougher place to play than in Philadelphia. Vick will play before the harshest critics, on a team some folks were already picking to reach the Super Bowl, in a division that is probably the most difficult in the NFL, operating week after week under the hottest media spotlight. There'll be no patience, no cushion, no grading on the curve.
Whenever the NFL allows Vick to return to regular season play, whether it's Week 7 against the Redskins or sooner, he'll bring one complex and emotionally charged story line to a city that welcomes controversy, a head coach who has total disdain for even the most benign distraction from routine, and a quarterback who usually through no fault of his own continually winds up in football's juiciest dramas.
The man who pulled the trigger on all this is Jeffrey Lurie, a strong owner by any measure, and a former Hollywood producer who has a master's degree in psychology from Boston University. He may need to call on all those academic and professional lessons to successfully choreograph this production. Lurie surely is tired of coming close and not winning the Super Bowl; his Eagles have been to the NFC championship game five times during the Andy Reid-Donovan McNabb era but have yet to win the Super Bowl. And Lurie must see Vick as a player, however tainted, who can help the Eagles win it all.
The question, of course, is: Can he?
As the wide receiver formerly known as Chad Johnson tweeted Thursday night when he heard the news: "Damn! Glad I don't play defense . . . good luck game planning to stop that."
Ochocinco was referring to the potential Eagles backfield of McNabb, Vick and Brian Westbrook, which would have to be among the most dangerous in football -- presuming the Eagles can quickly design and Vick can quickly master some kind of alternate offense that features him in some throwing-running option role that complements McNabb's traditional role.
That's an enormous "if."
McNabb has been one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL over the last 10 years, but he's a sensitive sort, asked annually to lead an offense that at times has been undermanned in terms of talent yet often proudly under the salary cap. The one season McNabb had a true marquee teammate on offense, Terrell Owens, the Eagles reached the Super Bowl.
Yet, T.O. wore out his welcome and nearly undermined McNabb's role as team leader in the process. McNabb certainly will be asked repeatedly in the coming weeks whether Vick is a welcome addition as a complementary player or some kind of new threat, looking over his shoulder and waiting for the chance to supplant McNabb as starter. One can fairly wonder just what Lurie and his lieutenants had in mind when they were envisioning Vick's role on this team.
The McNabb-Vick dynamic would be of major interest in any NFL city. In Philadelphia, it's potentially the most explosive story line of the football season. McNabb and Vick have a history, and a friendly one. When Vick was a high school senior his host during his official recruiting visit to Syracuse was McNabb.
Once again, McNabb is caught in a terribly difficult position. Booed by Eagles fans upon being drafted by Philadelphia, it has been one episode after another. Does he run too much? Does he run enough? Is he black enough? Did he hyperventilate during the Super Bowl? Much of the controversy surrounding McNabb plays out in the context of race, and here the Eagles bring in a quarterback black fans feel is the quintessential black quarterback: Vick, the enormously talented player who has never been reluctant to tuck it and run, which McNabb rarely does anymore . . . sometimes to great criticism. At worst, what a fabulous insurance policy to have if McNabb gets injured during the season, which has been known to happen.
Whether it's in a "Wildcat" capacity or as a backup quarterback, Vick can very quickly regain his football reputation and status if the Eagles win. No place is as unforgiving as Philly, not even New York. But the rewards that await a man who leads anything Philly to the Promised Land are great. Still, few great athletes write a happy ending there. Ask Charles Barkley, or Allen Iverson, or Eric Lindros, or Randall Cunningham or (so far) McNabb. Athletes with the physical gifts Vick had when we last saw him always think they'll be the ones to do what the others couldn't.
Looking in on this with more than a passing interest are the Cowboys, Giants and, yes, the Redskins. In case you're looking ahead, the Eagles will be in Washington on Monday night, Oct. 26. (A more fascinating road date, actually, is a Philly visit to Atlanta on Sunday, Dec. 6). It's a great thing the Redskins added all that offseason help on defense because Greg Blache is going to need all the help he can get when the Redskins play the Eagles. Undoubtedly, Redskins fans will wonder why their team couldn't have Vick, as if management hadn't done everything possible already to undermine Jason Campbell.
Washington would have been a downright comfortable fit for Vick, compared to Philly, what with the Virginia Tech presence in and around D.C. But maybe that would have been too comfy for Vick's return. Maybe what he needs -- and perhaps he knows this -- is an environment that isn't so welcoming, one that will keep him on edge and be demanding of him from the very start. Maybe it's the threat of a good booing and the pressure of finding his game right now that will help Vick regain his form.
If he's looking for that hard edge and an environment that will neither bend nor break, Philly's just the place he's looking for.