- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 21, 2009

Even before the prison door had slammed shut behind Michael Vick, the NFL had moved on. Who needed him, really? This is the league, remember, that can lose Tom Brady in Week 1 - amid the worst economy in decades - and not even feel a twinge in its wallet. The NFL is 100 stories taller than any one player, even an Xbox all-star like Mike.

And let’s face it, by the time Vick was packed off to Leavenworth, Kan., much of the thrill was gone. Though he was setting records as a running quarterback, the first to rush for 1,000 yards, he wasn’t making any progress as a passer - and his team, the Falcons, were stuck in a similar rut. Worse, he’d become one of the poster children for All That’s Wrong With Professional Sports. If he wasn’t flipping off booing fans in the Georgia Dome, he was being sued for passing along a sexually transmitted disease or getting into an embarrassing episode at an airport with his entourage.

Then, piling on like a 350-pound defensive tackle, came the dogfighting - and the horrific details that spilled out about it. Suddenly, the question wasn’t “does Michael Vick have what it takes to be a great quarterback?” but rather “do we even know who he is, this guy we’ve been following with such fascination for the past eight years? Is he more a marketing creation, a figment of Madison Avenue’s imagination, than human?”

Vick did an end run on the media Wednesday when he slipped out of prison during the predawn hours - quickly establishing that he’s lost none of his elusiveness. He’ll serve the last two months of his sentence under home confinement in Hampton, Va., allowed to leave the house for little other than a low-paying construction job. There’s no timetable for his return to football and no guarantee NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will immediately reinstate him.

If Goodell doesn’t, though, it might pique the curiosity of the new attorney general, Eric Holder. After all, Vick’s crimes have cost him 21 months of his life, stained his reputation, landed him in bankruptcy court and perhaps even caused his talents to atrophy. Hasn’t the man paid - and won’t he continue to pay - enough of a price? Or must there be some additional penance? Must he stay after school and clean the commissioner’s blackboards, too?

The world Vick rejoins is much different from the one he left. The real estate bubble has burst - as he no doubt saw when he tried to unload 1915 Moonlight Road (aka Dogfighting Central) - and the Dow Jones industrial average has deflated along with it. Money these days is tighter than a lineman’s jersey. Even the NFL is laying off workers.

No owner, especially one with unsold seats or luxury boxes, is anxious to antagonize fans by signing an unpopular player - and Vick, given his crimes against Fidokind, certainly fits that description. This limits his options, not to mention his earning power. The issue isn’t really whether he’ll ever make big dough again but whether he’ll be offered much more than the minimum (plus incentives, presumably).

But beyond that, there’s just an increasing intolerance in the league for misbehaving and/or high-maintenance players. The Cowboys just severed ties with Terrell Owens - even though he caught an NFL-leading 38 touchdown passes the past three years - because, well, they just needed a TO from T.O. In Miami, meanwhile, Jason Taylor crawled back this week after being banished to Washington for Indifferent Offseason Preparation (read: choosing “Dancing With the Stars” over “OTAs With Tony Sparano”).

Now the owners and players are in the midst of a CBA staredown - and who knows where that will lead? At any rate, it ain’t the NFL of 2006 (Vick’s last season) anymore - and it’s definitely no country for divas.

But this Wildcat offense that’s beginning to gain traction in the league - now there’s a change that, in Vick’s case, might be for the better. It’s basically an offshoot of the single wing and requires a quarterback with the running and passing skills of a 1940s tailback. The Dolphins experimented with it last season with a halfback, Ronnie Brown, taking the snaps, but what the Wildcat really needs is a guy with Vick’s gifts - a guy with halfback speed who can also fling the ball 70 yards.

When he first came into the league, folks said Vick would reinvent the quarterback position, but he was never going to do it within the constraints of the standard pro set. Why? Because an offense can’t be successful if revolves around improvisation, and spontaneity has always been a big part of Michael’s game. The Wildcat, however, would play more to his strengths. He could roll out and throw; he could roll out and keep running; he’d have all sorts of options.

It might be Vick’s best chance to get back on the field, at least in the short term. But he would have to be willing to be a part-time player, to be a change-up - or even situational - quarterback. Could his already battered ego take another blow like that? Could he flourish in a supporting role? Depends, I suppose, on what happened inside Leavenworth’s walls - and inside his head.

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