Michael Vick never has been better than with Dan Reeves. In their lone season together as starting quarterback and head coach, Vick made the Pro Bowl, set personal records and led the Atlanta Falcons to the playoffs.
Most impressive, Vick and the Falcons became the first visiting team to win a postseason game at Green Bay's Lambeau Field.
Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts, Don Meredith and the Dallas Cowboys, Y.A. Tittle and the New York Giants: They were among the quarterbacks and teams that perished in the playoffs at Lambeau before Vick and the Falcons prevailed.
It was January 2003. Vick was 22. His future was limitless.
This afternoon, following the most precipitous and bizarre fall in sports history, Vick returns to professional football as a member of the Philadelphia Eagles.
Nearly three years — 1,001 days, to be precise — have passed since his last regular-season game. But Reeves is convinced that Vick can regain the form that taxed defenses, captivated fans and prompted the Falcons to award him a $130 million contact.
"I know it's tough coming back not playing for two years," said Reeves, an NFL analyst for Westwood One radio. "But Mike's still a young man, and looking at the positive side of it, he hasn't been banged up the last two years, so he should be healthy.
"Certainly it's going to take some time to knock the rust off. You don't get back to the speed of the game and so forth, and he hasn't had that opportunity in preseason games. …
"I think his natural instincts are unbelievable at that position. That's what you could see when you looked at him in college, just his unbelievable ability to make plays. And that's what he showed as we were coaching him. I think he will be able to come back and be an excellent quarterback."
Vick's backstory is infamous. An all-star for Warwick High, Virginia Tech and the Falcons, he missed the last two seasons while serving a 20-month federal prison term for his role in an interstate dogfighting ring.
Vick, 29, lost tens of millions in football and endorsement income, filed for bankruptcy and bore the scorn of animal-rights advocates. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suspended him indefinitely.
The suspension lifted, Vick returns today as the Eagles play the Kansas City Chiefs.
"I'm just very thankful," Vick said. "I can't reiterate that enough. … My appreciation for the game has changed tremendously."
Oddly enough, this afternoon's venue, Philadelphia's Lincoln Financial Field, was the site of Vick's last regular-season game, New Year's Eve 2006. The Falcons lost to the Eagles, concluding a 7-9 season that cost coach Jim Mora his job and branded Vick a "coach-killer."
Then a starter and face of the franchise, Vick is now a reserve and a curiosity.
Even with incumbent starter Donovan McNabb likely sidelined with a broken rib, Vick is expected to back up Kevin Kolb, seldom-used in two previous NFL seasons. But Eagles coach Andy Reid and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg have designed plays that employ Vick in a wildcat, or shotgun, formation.
With Vick lined up several yards behind center and taking a direct snap, the package, in theory, showcases the speed that made him the game's fastest quarterback and the first in NFL history to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season — he gained 1,039 in 2006.
"I was the wildcat originator," Vick said, "so it's not foreign territory to me. … It's almost like backyard ball, but it's become quite (popular) in this league now. Everybody's doing it, so I'm excited about my role."
As a second-year pro under Reeves in 2002, Vick established career bests for passing yards (2,936) and passer rating (81.6). His rating that season surpasses those posted last year by three playoff quarterbacks: Tennessee's Kerry Collins, Baltimore's Joe Flacco and Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger.
But Vick's numbers declined and critics emerged, even when the Falcons advanced to the NFC championship game in January 2005.
Reeves, who was fired after the 2003 season, dismisses those who question Vick's ability as a pocket passer.
"That's a big bunch of bull," he said. "Michael Vick can throw the football from the pocket as well as anybody. He's got a tremendously quick release, he sees the field very well, he has touch on the ball, he throws the deep pass, he lays it up and lets people run underneath it. He's not always drilling the ball.
"I'm telling you, there's no doubt in my mind, and I've been around Elway, Staubach, some great ones, Phil Simms. He can definitely do those things."
Reeves coached John Elway with the Denver Broncos and Simms with the New York Giants. He played with Roger Staubach on a Dallas Cowboys Super Bowl champion.
In Atlanta, Reeves installed an offense comparable to what the Eagles run, familiarity he believes will benefit Vick, providing he remains with the Eagles long-term.
"The plays are very similar," Reeves said. "What you do is take plays that he's familiar with and comfortable with and utilize him. They may not be the same exact ones that Donovan has, but that's what Marty Mornhinweg will be able to do. … Some of those plays are ones he ran all the way back at Virginia Tech.
"That's what we did. We went back and looked at plays he ran at Virginia Tech. We had those in our offense and made sure those were in our game plans."
With McNabb, 32, injured and approaching his football twilight, might Vick develop into a viable heir? Kolb was a second-round draft choice out of Houston in 2007, but he's yet to display a starter's chops.
Reid and Mornhinweg sound intrigued by the possibility.
"I think he could do that," Reid said of Vick taking full-time command. "Is he ready to play a whole game? … I don't think so, and I don't plan on putting him in that position right now."
Indeed, Vick is attempting the unprecedented.
Then-commissioner Pete Rozelle banished two All-Pros — Green Bay running back Paul Hornung and Detroit defensive tackle Alex Karras — for the 1963 season, and each returned as a starter the following year.
Hornung played on two subsequent championship teams, while Karras made another Pro Bowl. But their suspensions — they bet on NFL games — were half as long as Vick's.
Reeves, who reunited with Vick at Philadelphia's season opener in Charlotte, N.C., played against Hornung and Karras but described Vick's comeback as "completely unique."
"There's going to be bumps in the road," Reeves said. "But I think he's athletic enough and young enough to where he can overcome it. …
"He knows he's very fortunate, that a lot of people don't get a second chance. I'm excited for him. He's one of the most exciting players I've ever watched. You don't have many quarterbacks that are the fastest guy on the field."
Given his missteps, Vick will be monitored off the field as well. Goodell and team ownership mandated that he perform community service, and media not only have chronicled his mea-culpas to young people, but also delved into gotcha tactics usually reserved for politicians and Hollywood celebs.
Less than a week after Vick's July 20 release from home confinement, a Web site alleged that Vick had spent his first free evening with NBA all-star Allen Iverson at a Virginia Beach strip club. Not true.
After Vick signed with the Eagles, the tabloid New York Post reported that he had been seen sipping a vodka-and-pineapple juice at the Philadelphia airport. The team and league essentially responded, "So?"
Dr. Phil took his talk show to Philadelphia's Independence Hall and conducted a roundtable on Vick's return. Vick did not participate, but Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell did.
"What a lot of people lose sight of is that even before he got into trouble he lived under a lot of scrutiny," said Larry Woodward, Vick's Virginia Beach-based attorney. "He's lived in a fishbowl since he was at Virginia Tech, so he's equipped to handle that. He understands that's part of the job, someone with his talent and background even more so."
Vick's talent will make him $1.6 million this season, more than twice the NFL minimum for someone with his tenure. The team holds a second-year option for $5.2 million.
By all accounts, Vick has behaved impeccably in Philadelphia, meshing with teammates and arriving at the training facility before 8 a.m.
"He went through a lot, I know," Kolb said. "But he is a very humble person, a very sincere person. … I love having him as a teammate."
Vick understands, however, that humility and sincerity aren't enough. Like all professional athletes, he will be judged on performance.
"I'm still going to be aggressive," Vick said. "Nothing is going to change about me on the field. I'm still going to be that same player."
Today's gameToday's game WHO: Kansas City Chiefs (0-2) at Philadelphia Eagles (1-1).
WHEN: 1 p.m.
TV: CBS 3 6.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun