Once again, Michael Vick escapes. He is nothing if not elusive, even though he doesn't evade tacklers as deftly as he used to. How does he do it? How does he give disaster the slip? Worst-case scenarios bear down on him like so many defensive ends. A potentially career-killing incarceration, the prospect of financial ruin, the specter of unemployment as he approaches football old age—all had their chance to sack him. Yet Vick never takes the full hit.
He scrambled to safety again last week, when all indications pointed toward the Eagles' releasing him. After two straight seasons filled with injuries and turnovers, after being supplanted at quarterback by younger, cheaper Nick Foles for six games in 2012, it appeared that Vick, who will turn 33 in June, was about to be jobless, with an uncertain future. Instead, Philadelphia's new coach, Chip Kelly, decided to keep him for at least another season at a reported salary of $7 million, which could increase to $10 million if Vick reaches certain incentives.
And so begins yet another lucrative fresh start. Four years ago, when Vick finished his 18 months at Leavenworth for the atrocities he committed at Bad Newz Kennels, the question was whether he would get another chance to extend his NFL career. Now it's fair to wonder if he will ever run out of them. It's strange how the sport hands out its opportunities. Another sporadically effective lefthanded quarterback known more for his running than his passing is looking for a chance to prove himself, yet the market for Tim Tebow seems nonexistent. But Vick? Sure, hand him another $7 mil and let's try this again.
Has he really done enough to warrant this constant pushing of the reset button? Or is it time to stop believing in the myth of Michael Vick? In relating his reasons for re-signing him, Kelly talked about how Vick's skill set—the quick release, the ability to bedevil defenses with his speed—will fit the Eagles' new spread offense. Finally he said, "I think there is a lot more to Michael."
That has been Vick's good fortune: Someone always thinks there's a lot more to him. Coaches find his raw talent and flashes of spectacular play irresistible. Dan Reeves and Jim Mora Jr. in Atlanta, then Andy Reid in Philly, were seduced into thinking they could squeeze something consistently amazing out of Vick. The story has always played out more or less the same way: He gives them enough to keep their hopes alive—a trip to the NFC title game with the Falcons in 2004, an impressive 12-game stretch with the Eagles in 2010 that earned him a six-year, $100 million contract extension with $40 million guaranteed—but in the end he always delivers less than they thought he would.
The Eagles believed they were getting the 2010 Vick, who threw for 21 TDs and six interceptions, when they rewarded him with that extension, which helped offset the debts he incurred when he lost his contract and endorsements due to his 2007 animal abuse convictions. What Philadelphia got instead was a below-average quarterback. Over the last two seasons Vick has 45 turnovers, more than any other QB, even though various injuries have allowed him to play in only 23 of a possible 32 regular-season games. His old bad habits—chiefly, holding the ball too long as he looks constantly and stubbornly for the big play—returned, leading to 21 fumbles. Philadelphia has gone 10--13 in games Vick started since he signed that megadeal.
Yet he endures, which perhaps says less about Vick than it does about the men who have coached him. Vick isn't pulling some con, after all; he has been essentially the same talented but flawed quarterback his entire career. But it's in the DNA of every coach to believe he can be the mentor who turns potential into performance. In the case of Reid and now Kelly, they have even been willing to ignore Vick's obvious unpopularity. In a recent Nielsen/E-Poll survey ranking America's 10 most disliked athletes, Vick was seventh, lumped in with other miscreants such as Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods and Alex Rodriguez. The public hasn't forgotten those dogs. Of all the players to get a lucky break or two, does it have to be him?
Last year only three starting quarterbacks were as old as Vick will be by the time the 2013 season starts: Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, none of whom relies on his legs for success. And Vick, with his propensity for injury, needs to reduce his exposure to hits, not increase it. At least Kelly seems more clear-eyed than Vick's previous coaches. He referred to the slim pickings in the quarterback market in explaining the decision to re-sign Vick, and has promised nothing more than an open competition with the 24-year-old Foles for the starting job. Still, $7 million is a hefty payout for a backup quarterback.
It's likely that Vick, never more than an occasional star, is just a temporary solution until Kelly can find the quarterback who fits his long-term vision. But even if that's the case, Vick will no doubt find another team that will invest in another grand experiment next off-season. These days, that's when he makes his best moves.