Rams-Eagles pregame warmup: Playing “what if” with Michael Vick

Take away the team colors. Now imagine clothing Michael Vick in Rams blue and gold. It could have happened. And it would have been a disaster.

I didn’t want to come to Philadelphia.

“Being the third-team quarterback is nothing to smile about. Cincinnati and Buffalo were better options.” Those two teams wanted him and would’ve allowed him to start, but after meeting with commissioner Roger Goodell and other reps from the NFL, Vick was convinced—and granted league approval—to sign with Philly. “And I commend and thank them, because they put me in the right situation.”

The big revelation from Will Leitch’s interview with Michael Vick in GQ magazine, hastily denied by all parties quoted or otherwise, was that Vick was somehow “steered” away from two of the least stable franchises in football and toward one of its granite foundation teams.

Of course it’s true. I’ve called Roger Goodell a lot of things, but he’s no dummy.

The NFL Commissioner made his legacy on player discipline, coming down hard on perceived bad actors for overly aggressive play on the field (“for safety”) and countless indiscretions off of it (“for conduct”). It’s nothing personal. He’s simply following in the footsteps of NBA power czar David Stern, taking ownership of everything having to do with the broadcast image of the league away from players and into his office. As we saw in the early battles of the Lockout, the enormous pile of TV money was the big prize everyone was fighting over. And the size of that pot for a league is directly proportional to the way that league broadcasts into the world’s living rooms, and what price advertisers will pay to ride along. 

When Vick was indicted for dogfighting — long before he was proven guilty, the now-obsolete standard for justice in this country — Goodell watched as the story exploded across the media, and readied his hammer. The day Vick admitted guilt, the hammer came down and he was suspended “indefinitely” from the NFL. Vick became the ultimate badguy, and the commissioner broadcast a “zero-tolerance” message into the living rooms on that day.

That decision was easy. The decision to let him back into the league, nearly two years later, was not.

Obviously, Goodell wanted to broadcast a message of redemption, but again, he’s no dummy. A man’s redemption takes time. But forgiveness from the people he’s hurt takes longer. 

Vick needed to land on a team where he would almost be guaranteed of not playing. Not for his own sake, but for the league’s. The NFL needed to go an entire season with Vick kept out of the news cycle before his radioactive public personna would start to cool off. Goodell is not the dumb one here, we are. After a full year, we forget.

The only people still holding a grudge after that long would be people who like holding grudges, those who felt personally wronged by Vick’s destruction of animal life. And most of those folks aren’t football fans. Or Eagles fans, anyway. 

Is that a cheap shot at Eagles fans? Yes, and no. More on that in a moment.

The Rams-Vick Possibilities

Buffalo and Cincinnati were not the only teams to show serious interest in Mike Vick. Billy Devaney and the Rams were right up there. Devaney visited Vick in prison around New Year’s, a natural time of reflection and renewal. This was 2009, six months before his release, and it was no courtesy call. They spent two hours talking, the former Falcons personnel man visiting with his former quarterback recruit.

While the Rams — and every other team in the NFL at that time — officially denied interest, the fit was obvious. Devaney had a model coach in Steve Spagnuolo, a Dungy-like figure of morality who staked his early coaching reputation on “four pillars” of conduct, providing Vick a clear template to hew to. And the Rams had a big empty hole in the roster where a star quarterback is supposed to go.

Writer David Heeb has some fun with the idea of consummating that relationship, and envisions a series of circumstances and re-thought decisions that ends with a Rams Super Team built around Vick (Dez Bryant! Von Miller! Aaron Hernandez! Boatloads of free agents!). I love alternate-reality sci-fi, and this is a pretty good read, but it depends largely on two fundamental events that could never have happened:

1. The 2009 Rams suffer through a 1-15 season with Vick riding the bench the whole way

2. Rams fans and ownership embracing Vick as their hero and savior.

Let’s talk truth here. St. Louis fans are not like Philadelphia fans. The Eagles have been so tantalizingly close to a Super Bowl title for so long that it dominates the zeitgeist of their fanbase. Every argument between fans about the team begins and ends with winning it all. There is no right way or wrong way to win, there’s just winning and not. And gambling on Vick, despite his past, has clear upside there.

If there were any conscientious objectors to Vick in Philadelphia, they were drowned out by sellout crowds and “just win baby” talk radio. That simply would not have been the case in St. Louis, where there is a large semi-ecclesiastical fan base for whom the miraculous championship of 1999-2000 wasn’t won, but delivered unto us. Kurt Warner was (and is) treated with almost messianic devotion, and the debate between the “just win baby” fans who supported the move to Bulger (irrefutable in terms of performance) were met with as much white-hot rage as an abortion doctor at Catholic mass.  

Vick and the Rams would have been in a no-win situation, in every sense of the word. How long into an 0-7 start, with Marc Bulger and Kyle Boller both stinking up the joint, could a weapon like Vick have been kept on the bench? The small core of faithful who stuck with the team during the bad times would have been split between demanding that he start, and decrying his very presence on the field. In the absence of large crowds outside the stadium, animal-rights protesters could make themselves very visible, making the news cycles and embarrassing Goodell and the league. Oh, and the talent-denuded Rams still would have sucked, hanging a dark cloud over Vick’s comeback. All this while the Rosenblooms try and find a buyer for their team in a hostile economic climate. 

All of this was a part of Goodell’s calculation. Just as he “steered” Rush Limbaugh away from the franchise in 2009 (also the right decision), he would have quashed any possibility of Vick signing here, even if it meant depriving the Rams of an uptick in ticket sales and wins. 

So we went through that 1-15 hell, and came out of it with Sam Bradford and an entire team pulling together toward playoff contention. We came out of it with a team hopefully capable of going toe to toe with Vick and this Eagles squad. So it’s a little easier now to look back and say, “You know what? The Commissioner was right.”