- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Michael Vick did his time, spending 20 months in federal custody after a dogfighting conviction.

Now that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has conditionally reinstated the former Atlanta Falcons quarterback, the team that signs him - assuming that happens - will face its own trial in the court of public opinion.

Many will find the club guilty of enabling a felon who contributed to the maiming and death of dozens, if not hundreds,of dogs.

Vick, who remains on three years’ probation, will face new challenges himself. After an absence from the field of more than two years, he will attempt to revive his career and rediscover the specialtalents he displayed for six NFL seasons.

He last played a professional football game on Dec. 31, 2006.

“Nobody knows what kind of shape this guy is in and how rusty he’s gonna be,” former Washington Redskins and Houston Texans General Manager Charley Casserly said.

“It’s going to be more of a transition than even he realizes,” said ex-Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick.

As part of his reinstatement, Vick will serve at least a five-game suspension. He will have time to find his legs and his timing, reclaim his football acumen and ease into what figures to be a different and more limited role as a player.

But any team that signs Vick is likely to jump into controversy and public relations quicksand immediately.

The general outcry against Vick - which reached fever pitch before, during and after his trial - is expected to resume. Wherever he shows up, he probably will be joined by a cadre of protesters that includes animal rights activists, pet owners and anyone else angered and horrified by the abuses connected with dogfighting.

Many will vent their wrath via innumerable forms of media and social networking. Others will express their scorn for Vick (and whoever signs him) at the dinner table or coffee machine or simply shake their heads in disgust and root against his new team. Once he is activated, a flashing neon “Kick Me” sign will become part of his jersey.

“I’ve got three dogs, three cats and three horses,” said Mr. Billick, now a Fox television analyst. “My wife and daughter - talk about the vitriol they have for Michael Vick, I don’t think it’s something that people who aren’t animal lovers can understand.”

Actually, many do.

Mr. Billick and the Ravens dealt with something comparable, although not identical, nearly a decade ago. That’s when All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis faced double-murder charges along with two others, stemming from the stabbing deaths of two men after Super Bowl XXXIV in Atlanta in January 2000.

The murder charges against Lewis were dropped, but he pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice, was fined $250,000 and placed on a one-year probation. He was not suspended by the league. But throughout the following season, his character constantly was called into question, and some opposing fans showered Lewis with verbal abuse.

“I’m a grown man, and I’ve been around, but it was shocking the things that came out of people’s mouths,” Mr. Billick said. “[Vick] will get a little of that. But like with Ray, it’s a great motivation.”

The Ravens went on to win the Super Bowl. The game’s most valuable player, as well as defensive player of the year, was Ray Lewis.

Mr. Billick suggested that Vick’s new team follow the same script as the Ravens in dealing with the intense media interest and in minimizing distractions.

“We laid it out in training camp,” he said. “We gave access to Ray and said, ‘Look, we’ll do this one time and one time only. Ask your questions. We’ll be as forthright and honest as possible, and we will not address this again.’ ”

The specific needs of a particular team aside, Vick would be best-suited to a club “that has a pretty strong-minded coach and veterans in the locker room,” ESPN analyst and former New York Jets and Kansas City Chiefs coach Herm Edwards said. “There’s gonna be picketing and that stuff, but that kind of goes away. You can anticipate that.

“People will voice their opinions, and that’s what great about America. But the speech you’ve got to give your players is, ‘The guy has paid his penance, he deserves a chance to make a living, he can help this team, and we gotta help this guy. He’s one of us, and we’ve got to be in his corner.’ ”

Even before his problems, Vick was inconsistent as a starting quarterback, demonstrating dazzling speed and agility and a rocket arm, but also occasional poor judgment. Mr. Billick said he never was entirely sold on Vick as a first-rate quarterback and would not sign him today, for that and other reasons.

But as others have suggested, Mr. Billick said Vick would be most effective in the trendy Wildcat scheme that features a hybrid running back/quarterback who can run and throw and keep defenses guessing. “He’d be the ultimate Wildcat quarterback,” Mr. Billick said. “But you have to have the system in place.”

Mr. Casserly, a CBS analyst, added: “But the guy might not have any legs at this point, being out two years. I can see him taking an entire year to get himself in shape.”

Vick’s two-year absence “is big,” Mr. Edwards said, “because he handles the ball. That’s critical. Even before, he [fumbled a lot], and people didn’t like that.”

Mr. Edwards, who placed Vick among the “top 15” quarterbacks in the NFL when he played, agrees that Vick might need a full year to get ready. “That’s the conversation I’d have with him,” he said. “This is a year’s work. We’re gonna be starting from ground zero.”

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