He could have stayed at home, and no one would have batted an eyelash. Michael Vick was aching and embarrassed following a 28--13 loss to the Saints on Nov. 5, a blowout in which he was sacked seven times while younger sibling Marcus went on a Twitter rampage that included a plea to "Please trade my brother. We requesting out of Philly!!!!" The Eagles' quarterback had promised to visit the Jersey Shore and tour the damage caused by Superstorm Sandy on the morning after the game in New Orleans, but for him to have bailed given the team's four-game losing streak—well, who could blame him?
So when Atlantic City mayor Lorenzo Langford received a call that morning from Vick's publicist, he assumed the embattled quarterback was postponing or canceling. "He got back to Philadelphia at five in the morning," Langford says, "but the call was to let me know he was still coming."
Sure enough, Vick packed up his wife, Kijafa, and their two young daughters, Jada and London. And there he was that afternoon, meeting with local youth and high school football players in Atlantic City, volunteering at a shelter for those who'd lost their homes to flooding and donating $50,000 to the relief effort. Granted, this kind of trip is standard p.r. fare for an NFL player; but for Vick, who is still working to rebuild his image more than three years after his release from federal prison, it's another small example of change.
His presence was welcome. "People needed to be consoled," says Langford, "and I wanted Mike to spend time with them. To see the exuberance in the eyes of the kids—they never thought they'd get to touch a real star." As for the issue that landed him in jail in the first place, "I was around him the whole time, and no one asked him about the dogfighting. You would have never known that other side—it never came up."
Which is hardly to suggest that all Vick's problems have disappeared. Says Langford, "Most of the questions he got were, 'How come the offensive line can't do a better job protecting you?'"
Better job? Try any job at all. Even before he suffered a concussion in the second quarter of Sunday's 38--23 loss to the Cowboys—an injury that he suffered when his head hit the grass under pressure from Dallas linebacker Ernie Sims—no quarterback had felt more heat this season than Vick, who had been pressured on 43.2% of his 368 dropbacks. Entering Week 10, he had been sacked 27 times, tied for third most in the NFL; and according to Pro Football Focus he was tied for the lead in throwaways (16) and in being hit as he throws (seven). Even as he's trying to become more of a pocket passer, Vick had still scrambled 35 times, not including designed runs, which is more than any other quarterback.
Simultaneously—or because of all this—he was on pace to reach career highs in interceptions (nine so far) and fumbles (10). And this in a town where sports talk radio devours quarterbacks like thinly sliced cheesesteaks. "Everybody's like, 'He's a horrible quarterback,'" says Lions defensive tackle Corey Williams, whose Lions beat up on Vick in Week 6. "But he can't sit in the pocket. He's running for his life."
Such is the harsh reality of working behind an offensive line that on Sunday had just one player in the same position at which he started the season, left guard Evan Mathis.
"It's a little weird," says Mathis of the dizzying spate of injuries, which he compares to the horror movie franchise Final Destination, wherein fate-tempting teens get offed in increasingly implausible ways. "Hopefully," he says, "I don't get hit by a bus."
Alas, these Eagles can hardly blame cosmic forces. Defensively, start with the Oct. 16 firing of coordinator Juan Castillo following that loss to the Lions. Two weeks later, with secondary coach Todd Bowles serving as the interim, the Eagles surrendered 30 points to the Falcons, marking coach Andy Reid's first loss coming off of a bye week since he took the gig 14 seasons ago.
Meanwhile the offense ranks 29th in scoring despite the presence of dynamic playmakers such as wideout DeSean Jackson and running back LeSean McCoy. When Reid's Eagles won the NFC East crown in 2010, they had 15 touchdowns of 20 yards or more, second most in the NFL. A year ago they had eight, 18th in the league. Through nine games this season they have just four—tied for 21st. "We're seeing a lot of two safeties over the top," explains another of Vick's long-range weapons, receiver Jeremy Maclin. "They're not letting us get behind them." (On Sunday, Maclin caught a 44-yard TD pass from Vick's replacement, rookie Nick Foles.)
Whatever the problem, the pressure is on Reid to figure it out, and fast. Although he has one year remaining on his contract, his job security has been debated as often as Vick's, and that chatter is sure to continue after the Dallas loss. In August, following an 8--8 finish in 2011, owner Jeffrey Lurie decreed that he needed to see "substantial improvement." Now, after dropping their fifth straight game and falling to 3--6, the Eagles must finish 6--1 in order to show any improvement.
When he has time, Mike is one of the best quarterbacks in the league," says Mathis, defending Vick off the field as Philly's line has failed to do on it. "We have to protect him. We have to let Mike be Mike."
But just who is Michael Vick 2.0?
Off the field, he is (controversially) a new dog owner and (less controversially) the founder of the clothing line V7. After a brief separation he is again endorsed by Nike, and he also has deals with the supplement maker MusclePharm, the sports equipment company Unequal Technologies, and Core Synergy, a maker of titanium bracelets. He is the author of Finally Free, a 285-page autobiography, released two months ago, in which he retraces his career, from being the first draft pick in 2001; to spending most Tuesdays at dogfights during his Falcons tenure; to telling his grandmother that he was going away to "training camp," not Leavenworth federal penitentiary; to the November 2010 Monday Night Football game against the Redskins that began the second act of his career in earnest. In that game, his fifth start for the Eagles, Vick completed 20 of 28 passes for 333 yards and four touchdowns, and he ran an additional eight times for 80 yards and two more scores. The sizzling performance inspired Reid to stick with Vick over Kevin Kolb, who would be traded to the Cardinals that off-season. But it painted only one half of the picture.
Consider what happened just before halftime against the Cardinals in Week 3 of this season. Down 17--0 and running the two-minute drill from his own 20-yard line, Vick led the Eagles downfield with a series of savvy check-downs that worked the underneath. He knocked off another 20-yard chunk with a winding run that evaded four Cardinals defenders (and that ended in Vick's getting up woozily, one might note). It was classic Vick. But then, four plays later, sitting on the one-yard line with six seconds before halftime, Vick dropped back and, inexplicably, held on to the ball too long. Safety Kerry Rhodes came off the left edge to level the unsuspecting QB, forcing a fumble. Defensive back James Sanders returned it 93 yards for a touchdown, and Arizona went into the locker room up 24--0. Classic Vick 2.0.
"Peyton Manning would have seen that coming," Eagles guard Dennis Kelly says of Vick's not recognizing the blitz. "There are just times when he doesn't see things. He never really had to worry about reading defenses before."
"I don't think I'm an expert," admits Vick, whose alertness was not to blame in Sunday's injury. "Sometimes I'm not the best at presnap reads; probably 75 to 80 percent of the time I'm dead on."
That 20 to 25 percent matters. In 2012, Vick has been averaging 3.12 seconds to throw, longer than every quarterback except for Seahawks rookie Russell Wilson (3.14). The league average is 2.83 seconds. Tom Brady clocks in at 2.48; Peyton Manning goes 2.51.
"His challenge is going to be upstairs, above the neck," says Pittsburgh linebacker Larry Foote, whose Steelers escaped with a 16--14 win over Philadelphia in Week 5. "Is he going to get the ball out on time? Is he going to make the right reads? ... But he can definitely highlight."
True, no one is questioning Vick's arm strength. How could you after his 31-yard pass to DeSean Jackson on Sunday, a sideline laser beam that set up a gem of a touchdown pass to Riley Cooper, Vick showing off his mastery of the fade route. And yes, defenders still have to respect Vick's ability to make them look foolish in open space. This season he's rushed for 19 first downs and he's had 11 carries of 10 yards or longer—both ranked third for quarterbacks, behind RG3 and Cam Newton.
But in order to limit injuries and to more quickly get the ball into the hands of the playmakers around him, Vick has tried to evolve from a run-first game-changer into a work-through-the-progressions game manager. This new style of play, Vick says, is akin to "Michael Jordan when he went to the fadeaway jumper. He wasn't going to the rim and dunking. He wasn't playing recklessly. I'm just trying to play under control and scramble when I have to."
And it's been a struggle at times.
Dating back to 2010, including one playoff game, Vick is a respectable 18--16 as Philadelphia's starter, but in his last 24 starts he's gone 10--14 with 25 interceptions and 11 lost fumbles. He's suffered an array of injuries (broken ribs, concussions, a bruised hand) and missed seven starts since '10. Now it's possible that he'll miss one more, next Sunday at Washington. (Reid hadn't ruled him out as of Monday.) The goodwill Vick accumulated after leading the Eagles to a 10--6 record and being named the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year in 2010 is waning. How much so? That will become clear when Vick recovers from his concussion and Reid is forced to choose: Hand him back the reins, or stick with Foles, a third-round pick out of Arizona who was 22 of 32 for 219 yards and that TD to Maclin, but who also had an interception and a fumble returned for scores.
General manager Howie Roseman signed Vick to a six-year, $100 million contract in August 2011, and before this year's draft—when he took Foles reasonably early for a team content with its QB—Roseman reiterated, "We're all in with Michael." But Vick, at 32, with flecks of gray in his beard and atop his head, and with knees that he says took a pounding from playing pickup basketball on concrete floors in prison, can be cut at season's end and owed just $3 million. If the Eagles were to keep him, it would cost them at least $15.5 million. And Foles? He signed a $2.8 million deal in May—for four years.
What would Vick, the four-time Pro Bowler, find elsewhere? "You need to have 32 starting quarterbacks," says one NFC G.M. who thinks Vick could find work as a starter "almost by default." But he adds, "A lot of people will ask, 'If Andy Reid couldn't make him a consistent player, what chance do we have?'"
Make no mistake: Vick remains ever the elusive threat, and given the problems with Philly's line, the Eagles could be in even worse shape were they to go with Foles, whose three-year college rushing total was a net of negative-289 yards and whose welcome-to-the-NFL moment involved being pile driven into the ground by DeMarcus Ware.
Vick feels this heat, and he has handled the off-field pressure with aplomb. He called a players-only meeting on Oct. 31, mid--losing streak. He has kept the respect of his teammates by not passing the blame. "He hasn't sold any of us out," says Mathis. And Vick contained the damage caused by his brother's tweets during the Saints game by telling reporters, "I definitely got that corrected. You'll never see that again, trust me."
"In my life, I'm still in a good place," Vick says. "I'm thankful to be able to walk into this locker room. I'm thankful that I had another opportunity to play football. I thank God I've turned into a better person."
Asked last week whether his future is elsewhere, Vick would only say, "I hear people talking about it. I just want to continue to play football."
Whether it's in Philly may be out of his hands.
"Peyton Manning would have seen that coming," one Eagle says of a particularly hard hit on Vick.
"People will ask, If Reid can't make Vick consistent, who can?"
If not Philadelphia, then where could Michael Vick be playing in 2013? Chris Burke weighs the potential landing spots at SI.com/mag
Photograph by DARRYL WEBB/REUTERS
WEEK 3 CARDINALS 27, EAGLES 6 Five sacks, 13 hits, two lost fumbles
DREW HALLOWELL/PHILADELPHIA EAGLES/GETTY IMAGES (BROWNS)
WEEK 1 EAGLES 17, BROWNS 16 Two sacks, 11 hits, two fumbles, four INTs
HUNTER MARTIN/PHILADELPHIA EAGLES/GETTY IMAGES
WEEK 2 EAGLES 24, RAVENS 23 Two sacks, four hits, one lost fumble, two INTs
HOWARD SMITH/US PRESSWIRE (GIANTS)
WEEK 4 EAGLES 19, GIANTS 17 Two sacks, three hits
JASON BRIDGE/US PRESSWIRE (STEELERS)
WEEK 5 STEELERS 16, EAGLES 14 Three sacks, eight hits, three fumbles, two lost
KIRTHMON F. DOZIER/MCT/ABACAUSA.COM (LIONS)
WEEK 6 LIONS 26, EAGLES 23 Three sacks, 12 hits, one fumble, two INTs
SIMON BRUTY (FALCONS)
WEEK 8 FALCONS 30, EAGLES 17 Three sacks, five hits
DERICK E. HINGLE/US PRESSWIRE
WEEK 9 SAINTS 28, EAGLES 13 Seven sacks, 12 hits, one fumble, one INT
DERICK E. HINGLE/US PRESSWIRE
DAVID BERGMAN (COWBOYS)
WEEK 10 COWBOYS 38, EAGLES 23 Two hits; left with concussion