On Christmas Eve of 2004, the Atlanta Falcons gave Michael Vick a 10-year, $130 million contract, more in recognition of his promise than his production.
Almost three years and $22 million worth of signing bonus later, Vick is likely headed to prison and his football career is in jeopardy. The brilliantly talented, but tragically flawed quarterback has fallen short of the Falcons' vision in every way possible.
It is uncertain whether there will be any more NFL Sundays in store for Vick after a 12-to-18-month prison sentence - the punishment expected to be meted out for a guilty plea to dogfighting charges.
But Leigh Steinberg, the sports agent who has advised marquee quarterbacks, can see a future with Vick back in the NFL, if not back in Atlanta.
"Imagine a tearful Michael Vick admitting that he did what he was charged with, vowing to be an advocate for animals rights and [willing to] spend the rest of his life making up for whatever harm he did," Steinberg said.
"It's as brutal a destruction of a reputation as I've seen in years for a player, but the passage of time with the right repentance will heal a lot of wounds. It just does."
Steinberg, who does not represent Vick, said supply and demand for elite quarterbacks likely will dictate another chance for Vick.
"Remember, we're talking about a player that several years ago was considered to be the most talented player in the entire NFL by many people and the shining star of the NFL," Steinberg said.
That precludes a lifetime ban by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who is cracking down on aberrant behavior in the league. Goodell has instituted a new personal-conduct policy, and could issue the lifetime ban if the NFL's investigation into the charges produces evidence of gambling.
Veteran Gary Stills of the Ravens says Vick should be allowed back after he has taken his punishment.
"Of course he should be allowed back in the league," Stills said. "Whatever he did, he's got to face up to it. Whatever he did was wrong, he got in trouble, he'll take a plea. He shouldn't be banned from the NFL."
Because terms of Vick's plea agreement haven't been announced, it's uncertain how much time he will miss. It is expected that Goodell's suspension will come at the end of Vick's jail time, just as it did when he suspended former Chicago Bears defensive tackle Tank Johnson during the offseason.
If Vick, 28, gets 18 months in prison along with the one-year suspension, he could be out of the league for three full seasons. In that scenario, he'd be 31 when he returns in 2010.
Ron Wolf, a retired general manager with a knack for developing quarterbacks, said he believes Vick could make a successful return to the league.
"Yes, he can come back," Wolf said. "You saw that during the war years. Some guys lost two or three years at that position and came back and performed as well as they did previously. He's young enough to do all that."
What's more, Wolf thinks Vick will be entitled to return once he's served his time.
"If he's paid his debt to society, why shouldn't he play?" Wolf asked.
The most recent player to return to the league after serving time in prison is former Ravens running back Jamal Lewis, who served a four-month sentence before the team's 2004 training camp for using a cell phone to facilitate a drug-trafficking crime.
Leonard Little, a defensive end with the St. Louis Rams, served 90 days in jail and an eight-game league suspension after killing a woman in a 1998 auto accident while driving with a blood-alcohol level of 0.19.
Steinberg said that by following the right steps, Vick can make a comeback of sorts.
"America allows people to reinvent themselves," Steinberg said. "He did not murder a human being, he didn't hurt a human being. ... This is a country of pet lovers. The imagery of a physically virile athlete torturing an innocent animal was so repugnant that it struck a chord in the American public."
Staff writer Don Markus contributed to this article.
VICK CASE TIMELINE
April 20: Davon Boddie, Michael Vick's cousin, is arrested in the parking lot of a Hampton, Va., nightclub after a police dog alerted its handler that marijuana might be in Boddie's vehicle. Boddie, 27, is charged with possession of marijuana with intent to distribute.
April 25: Investigators search the Surry County property where Boddie lives. The property is owned by Vick, a Newport News native and Atlanta Falcons quarterback. Investigators find dogfighting items and more than 60 dogs, some scarred.
April 26: Vick, 27, says he's never at the property, a white-brick house that sits on 15 acres.
May 9: Vick puts the property on the market for $350,000, less than half of its assessed value. It's under contract in less than a day. The sale has not been recorded in the circuit court clerk's office.
May 21: Investigators meet with Surry County Commonwealth's Attorney Gerald Poindexter to discuss evidence. They leave the meeting without comment.
June 7: Federal agents are seen digging and removing evidence at the Surry property.
July 6: Federal agents return to the property to dig some more.
July 17: Vick and three others are indicted on a charge of conspiracy to travel in interstate commerce in aid of unlawful activities and to sponsor a dog in an animal-fighting venture.
July 23: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell tells Vick to stay way from the Falcons' training camp as the league investigates the case.
July 30: The first co-defendant pleads guilty.
Aug. 17: Two other co-defendants plead guilty.
Aug. 20: One of Vick's lawyers issues a statement that says Vick has agreed "to enter a plea of guilty to those charges and to accept full responsibility for his actions."
[Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)]