During the first three months of an off-field soap opera that Tuesday afternoon was suddenly extended indefinitely, Michael Vick somehow managed to remain above the fray.
He was not oblivious to the fact his name was linked to a reprehensible and distasteful pastime said to take place on the property of a home he owned in Surry County, Va. But Vick was apparently impervious as federal agents dug, literally, into his past for links that might tie him to a dogfighting ring.
To a man, the people who sign his pricey paychecks and a new coaching staff charged with teaching Vick the third different offense in which he has worked in six years insisted that this was his best offseason ever. Vick was more diligent, worked harder on the field and in the classroom and took on a weightier mantle of leadership than he had at any previous time in his career.
Several teammates even wondered aloud, in conversations with ESPN.com, how Vick had managed to retain such remarkable focus in the teeth of a gathering storm. A few suggested that the team's complex in Flowery Branch, Ga., where Vick hadn't exactly been a frequent voluntary visitor in springs past, had become his sanctuary. The athletic arrogance that Vick had displayed so often in the past, which manifested itself in rumors that he really didn't feel he needed to be tutored on the game's finer points, was absent.
Humility and work ethic, it seemed, had become Vick hallmarks this spring.
Poised to enter the most critical season of his career on the field, even some internal detractors noted that Vick seemed to comprehend how crucial 2007 might be for him.
But now that Vick has officially been dragged into the fight, indicted on two felony counts by a federal court, one has to wonder about the unwavering focus he demonstrated during his tumultuous offseason. And moving forward into the 2007 season, provided Vick is permitted by commissioner Roger Goodell to continue playing while due process runs its course, the question of how he now responds on the field is a critical one here.
That is not to trivialize the serious off-field issues that Vick and his defense team face. In a statement released Tuesday evening, the league termed dogfighting "cruel, degrading and illegal," and it is certainly all that and perhaps more. But for every extracurricular indiscretion in the NFL, no matter how unsavory, there is an undeniable football component.
And the football component for the Atlanta Falcons right now, discounting all the ancillary ramifications, is whether or not Vick can continue to be a viable player and a leader for the team. Can the man who is already a lightning rod, and figures to be even more so now, even play at a functional level in the face of what lies ahead? Or should the Falcons, no matter the legal timeline upcoming, suggest he take a leave of absence?
The latter option may be discussed, but don't bet on it occurring.
A person who spoke with Vick at length after the indictments were announced said that the quarterback was "devastated" by the news. Whether those feelings were feigned or not, we can't say, because we weren't party to the conversation. But in reading the indictments, it isn't as if Vick's name is simply sprinkled into the federal documents. The pages are actually rife with references to the Atlanta star.
In late May, two federal law enforcement officials told ESPN.com they felt there was sufficient evidence to eventually indict Vick, but were less certain of mounting successful prosecution. There is a reason, however, that the Feds own a conviction rate of better than 95 percent. The government typically doesn't indict unless it knows it can probably convict, and that should be unsettling news for the Falcons and their quarterback.
On July 7, a day after the latest raid on Vick's property, one of those same federal sources told ESPN.com for a column that the quarterback was still part of the investigation. "Just because you've got a lot of links [lying] around doesn't mean you can call in a chain," the source said. "But it also doesn't mean you abandon the notion of seeing if those links might someday become a chain."
With all of that, all the signs pointing to the fact he was clearly not out of the woods, Vick could not have been particularly comfortable with his status.
Still, whether it was natural arrogance or the misperception he was beyond the reach of the investigation, Vick was blindsided by Tuesday's news, as was his coterie of advisors. Only 10 minutes before the news of the indictments broke, we were on the phone with a Vick confidant who didn't know what was to transpire. "This is going to be a test for Michael, that's for sure," the person acknowledged later in the evening.
But not only for Vick.
Falcons owner Arthur Blank, still out of the country Tuesday, faces a test of loyalty. Vick has been at times like a surrogate son to Blank, who has been often criticized locally for what is perceived as preferential treatment of his quarterback. But there came a point, perhaps when Blank awarded Vick a record $130 million, when the tenor of the relationship changed. Blank is all about image and, more than the dollar sign attached to Vick, it is the stigma his star could potentially carry that may concern him most.
Goodell certainly faces a litmus test, given the sanctions he has already levied against players such as Tennessee cornerback Pacman Jones, Cincinnati wide receiver Chris Henry and former Chicago defensive tackle Tank Johnson. It should be pointed out, however, that, unlike the players suspended by Goodell to this point, Vick is not a repeat offender in the eyes of the NFL. His actions at times have been offensive, but have never earned him a demerit under Goodell's stewardship. So the Tuesday indictments, in and of themselves, may not be grounds for action by the commissioner.
That said, Goodell will be under intense pressure from many quarters, given the unsavory nature of the charges, to do something. It's hard to fathom that a player who has been a poster boy of sorts for the NFL, certainly the face of professional football in this city, might now be rendered the subject of a mug shot.
But make no mistake, guilty or not, Vick is a marked man in the eyes of many. Already the most polarizing sports personality in the city, sometimes along racial lines, he figures to be a divisive figure and an easy target even at homes games now. The notion of dogfighting stirs repulsive passion even in those who don't carry a PETA or Humane Society membership card around. The electrifying Vick is soon to be zapped by the catcalls of those who have already made up their minds about him.
His arduous offseason issues aside, the 2007 season figured to be a tough test for Vick, who will be playing for a new, more demanding coach and in a new offense in which the standard is a 65 percent completion rate. That's a lot to heap on a guy who has yet to evolve into a complete quarterback, who doesn't handle change well, and who owns a career completion mark of less than 55 percent.
But all of those elements combined don't equal the kind of pressure Vick will now confront under the scrutiny of federal officials and fans who believe the legal authorities unearthed more than just dog carcasses as part of their investigation.
Able to stay above the fight to this point, Vick is suddenly at the center of it, and he will be battling not only for his career but also for his reputation.
In the July 7 column cited above, we noted that Vick should not exhale just yet. On Tuesday, his breathing just got a lot more labored.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer with ESPN.com.