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Original Issue

Masked Man

Michael Vick began practicing with the Eagles, with plenty of questions still hanging in the air

On Philadelphia sports-talk radio last Saturday, some longtime Eagles fans were vowing not to renew their season tickets. Outside the team's practice facility on Pattison and Broad, a handful of protesters chanted, "Hide your beagle, Vick's an Eagle!" and held signs printed with such messages as TOO MANY VICK-TIMS.

The scene was more sedate inside the facility's fences for Michael Vick's first practice as an Eagle—his first NFL action of any kind in 31 months, 17 of which he spent in prison after pleading guilty to federal dogfighting charges. Vick, 29, generally avoided the locker room during the periods in which the media were allowed inside, but the contents of his new cubby told the story not of a monster but of a man who deals with dry skin (Jergens lotion), perspiration (Axe body spray) and heartburn (a bottle of Nexium). The locker also contained the now-rumpled striped suit and mustard-yellow shirt Vick had worn to his introductory press conference the day before, when most of the talk focused not on his contribution on the field but on his personal transformation. "We don't measure him on yardage," said owner Jeff Lurie. "My own measure of Michael Vick will be 100 percent, Is he able to create social change in this horrendous arena of animal cruelty?"

That is a bit difficult to believe, as NFL teams are not in the habit of paying players up to $6.875 million over two years—the terms of Vick's deal—for their potential to do good. They pay them to play football well. "When he makes plays, scores touchdowns, it doesn't matter what he did," said fullback Leonard Weaver on Sunday, expressing a sentiment many of his teammates echoed. "The only thing that matters is that we win."

On the practice field Vick never removed his helmet, as if to shield himself from the glare of observers. He threw a few nice passes but didn't get a chance to exhibit the phenomenal athleticism that during his six seasons with the Falcons made him one of the league's most feared, if inconsistent, quarterbacks. That will change as the Eagles endeavor to find ways to get him on the field, at first probably on gadget plays run out of Wildcat-type formations. (Commissioner Roger Goodell has conditionally suspended Vick until Week 6 of the season, though Vick could play as early as Week 1 pending a final decision by Goodell.) "It's going to be real hard for defenses to game-plan against the offense," said veteran cornerback Asante Samuel. "I know that [coach] Andy [Reid] and the others will come up with some crazy offense."

Said Reid, "We have a couple guys that can run the ball pretty good, so you add all those up and you can have some fun." Whether Vick might one day succeed 11th-year starter Donovan McNabb, whom Reid briefly benched last year, remained unanswered.

After practice Vick entered the locker room and removed his ankle braces as dozens of cameramen and reporters surrounded him. "This is weird," he said quietly and accurately as he escaped into the trainer's room. All it will likely take for the weirdness in Philadelphia to begin to subside are a few on-field displays of Vick's old magic.

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PHILLY STAKES For now at least, Vick (7) poses no threat to the starting job of McNabb (5).