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.