THIS SWEET spot in time before the Super Bowl is supposed to be a feel-good moment for pro football, and to a large extent it is. Two African-American coaches, Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith, are taking their teams to Miami and reminding NFL owners that their executive ranks are still weirdly monochrome; an impeccable, Canton-bound quarterback, Peyton Manning, led the greatest comeback in conference title game history on Sunday; and New Orleans made it into the penultimate round. The only way life could be better for the NFL is if Michael Vick stayed out of the news.
Vick, who not that long ago was being touted as the Michael Jordan of pro football and the new face of the NFL, is having another rough year. Pick your low point: Was it when he was criticizing his Falcons coaches for their play calling? When he was giving Atlanta fans the finger during a home loss to the Saints? When talk swirled about demoting him to running back?
Vick is even having a rough postseason, quite a feat when your team didn't make the playoffs. While he won't face criminal charges for what happened at the Miami airport recently, the curious case of the trick water bottle could reset the direction of his NFL career.
As he passed through airport security on Jan. 17, Vick was told by TSA screeners that he couldn't take his water bottle into the gate area, but he refused to hand it over. He finally chucked the bottle into a recycling bin and went to his gate, but a screener retrieved it and discovered that while it looked like a normal Aquafina bottle, it had a secret compartment behind the label that contained what a police report called "a small amount of dark particulate and a pungent aroma closely associated with marijuana."
On Monday authorities in Miami said the substance was not marijuana and that Vick wouldn't be charged. But questions remain about why he behaved so strangely and why he was carrying a bottle similar to one advertised as being "hand made for a precision fit to keep your secret safe"?
Is Vick's bizarre and sometimes crude behavior offset by a résumé that includes three Pro Bowls, two postseason appearances and the NFL record for single-season rushing yards by a quarterback (1,039, set this year)? For now, perhaps. But the 26-year-old Vick is probably one screw-up away from being an unwanted man. His contract (he signed a 10-year, $137 million deal in December 2004) makes him tough to unload, but league insiders believe that Atlanta might try to do so. "The Falcons have to start looking at what they're getting out of him," says one AFC personnel director. "Is his production really worth all this knucklehead stuff?"
Even if Vick stays away from controversy, his quarterbacking needs to improve. He hasn't led Atlanta to the playoffs since 2004, and his quarterback rating hasn't been above 80.0—a mark indicative of a consistent passer—in any of his last four seasons. The Falcons are hoping new head coach Bobby Petrino can tailor the offense around Vick's athleticism, but three years ago the team was just as excited about Vick's running the West Coast offense, and he never looked comfortable with that system.
The Falcons hoped that by this, Vick's sixth pro season, he would have made the transition from dazzling physical specimen to steady signal-caller—in the manner of other mobile quarterbacks such as Steve Young, Donovan McNabb and Steve McNair. Instead, it's becoming apparent that Vick, whose career completion percentage is just 53.8, might never be anything more than a mediocre passer. Says one NFC scout, "If Petrino can come up with a system to maximize Vick's talent, Vick might have some upside as a passer. He is getting better at anticipating where receivers are supposed to be. But what you see with him now is really what you're going to get. He's still going to be inaccurate at times." Which explains why Atlanta is reluctant to trade promising third-year backup quarterback Matt Schaub.
Fans are getting tired of Vick too. In 2005 he had the second-highest selling jersey in the league; in '06 he wasn't even in the top 10. Some league insiders think that Vick's recent acting out—especially his criticism of former offensive coordinator Greg Knapp and the obscene gesture—is the behavior of a man frustrated at not being able to fulfill the expectations placed on him. "I think he's putting more pressure on himself," says an AFC executive.
The Falcons would now settle for Vick's simply becoming a more consistent player on the field and a less scandalous figure away from it. Falcons G.M. Rich McKay insists that he doesn't see a disturbing pattern developing with Vick, but he did say that owner Arthur Blank was "upset" by the airport incident and that the Falcons "are not trying to have ... continuous off-the-field instances on our football team." What this adds up to is that what was unimaginable a year ago—a Falcons team without Vick under center—is now a scenario on a lot of NFL minds.
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"[The Iranians] treated us like celebrities. We don't get that in the States.
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PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN UELAND
CHRIS BERNACCHI/SPORTPICS (VICK)