It was less than a half-hour after the last-second field goal that ended the Philadelphia Eagles’ season on Saturday night against the New Orleans Saints, and the mood in the home team’s locker room was predictably sedate. The dark green carpet was littered with the detritus of winter combat: shreds of tape, spent handwarmers, crusty gloves, stray pads. Equipment assistants combed the floor and filled industrial-size grey plastic laundry tubs with discarded compression shirts, socks, sweatpants and blankets. It was a hushed, sober processional: the abrupt closure that awaits all but one of the 12 teams that qualified for this month’s NFL playoffs.
On the periphery of this scene, away from the camera lights and clusters of reporters huddled around players in various states of undress, stood the 33-year-old backup quarterback. He'd spent the entirety of the game wrapped in a long black coat on the sidelines and was mentioned only in passing on NBC's telecast. He went easily unnoticed here, his back turned halfway to the room.
So went the end of the Michael Vick era in Philadelphia (or at least, what very much looks like the end), with a fraction of the headline-grabbing hullabaloo that accompanied his polarizing acquisition four and a half years ago; he was fresh off a 21-month prison sentence for his role in a dog-fighting ring at the time. Vick entered the 2013 season as the starting quarterback under first-year coach Chip Kelly, but an October hamstring injury opened the door for understudy Nick Foles, who became an overnight sensation, Sports Illustrated cover boy, and the team’s presumptive quarterback of the future. Vick’s contract expired with Saturday’s loss, and it’s highly unlikely he’ll re-sign with the Eagles to sit on the bench. “I’m still a starter,” Vick insisted on Saturday. “I’m not a backup quarterback.”
Vick’s resurfacing with the Eagles in August 2009 was more than a football story; it was a cultural flashpoint that dominated the national conversation for months. Hackneyed descriptors like contemptible and reprehensible cheapen the actions that landed Vick in the United States Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kan., after his co-conspirators turned state's evidence. He confessed to strangling, drowning, shooting, and electrocuting dozens of dogs. Like other indelible chapters in the American Sports Narrative, it transcended the playing field and forced fans into unpleasant conversations about race and socio-economics and the meaning of justice. It spawned thinkpieces and thinkpieces about those thinkpieces. It made fans confront and examine their own capacity for forgiveness. Even if you dismiss these sadistic proclivities and write off Vick as a patsy who was manipulated by the true evildoers—and that’s a charitable concession, bordering on fantasy, but let's go with it—what does that say about his judgment and leadership?
As anybody familiar with sports talk radio at the time can attest, many Philadelphians allowed that Vick deserved a second chance—If we're not going to give ex-convicts a second chance as a society, then why not lock them up for life?—but weren’t too thrilled about letting it happen with their team. The move reeked of desperation, a short-money grab for a coach who had run out of ideas. But the NIMBY line was quickly forgotten when Vick put together an MVP-caliber season in 2010—and earned a $100 million contract—but severely underwhelming campaigns in 2011 and ’12 left the team in complete disarray. As the Eagles crumbled under the weight of expectations, injuries and poor chemistry, Vick was revealed to be just a shadow of the player who broke through as a freshman at Virginia Tech more than a decade prior. The skills that made him special, that compensated for his modest size, were in irreversible decay. For the first time, you saw him get caught by defenders from behind. During his tenure as Philadelphia's starting quarterback, Vick led the league in fumbles.
Last season, the Eagles bottomed out at 4-12, which led to the firing of Andy Reid, the longest-tenured and winningest coach in team history. This year, they improved to 10-6, going from worst to first in their division. The six-win improvement equaled the greatest turnaround in franchise history.
Yet Vick had very little to do with the on-field success. He didn’t attempt a pass after October or throw for a touchdown after September. Still, he’s been a positive influence throughout the year, throwing his public support behind Foles and mentoring him behind the scenes. His biggest contribution was leveraging his influence to help defuse the Riley Cooper racism row that threatened to divide the locker room during the preseason. The controversy that's receded significantly over the past four years has died out almost completely since the emergence of Foles. Some protests abide—like the one at the Center City dive bar that refuses to show Eagles games until he’s off the team—but they’ve become the exception and not the rule. Mostly, save for a fringe contingent on sports talk radio, Vick has disappeared from the local sports consciousness.
As a football story, the Michael Vick era was anticlimactic. As a human being, you could say his time in Philadelphia was redemptive. He did everything right, maturing as a teammate and man. He donated his time and money to the Humane Society of the United States, spoke to groups at schools and youth centers and demonstrated contrition for his grievous crimes. There are plenty who think Vick's soul is rotten and it’s a con job, the desperate posturing of a sociopath willing to do or say anything to survive and generate income. It comes down to whether you're inclined see the good or bad in people.
And to that end, there is really no answer, no resolution, no tidy ending. All that’s left is a figure of peculiar empathy, alone by his locker, packing away his clothes on the last day of work.
It was 11:47 p.m. on Saturday when Vick took the brown teddy bear from his locker—a gift from one of his daughters last Christmas—placed it into a black duffel bag, zipped it up, and made his way toward the exit. He said goodbye to the security guards at the door and made the quick right turn into the cavernous tunnel leading to the players’ parking lot, where the sharp rush of frigid air was immediate. A lone writer trailed him to the exit to inquire about his uncertain future, but the time for talking was done. The backup quarterback shook the reporter’s hand without breaking stride and walked off into the night.