Eagles organization bares its soul

Quarterback Michael Vick, center, is along Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid, left, and former Colts coach and mentor Tony Dungy at a press conference on Friday. (Matt Rourke / Associated Press)

Quarterback Michael Vick, center, is along Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid, left, and former Colts coach and mentor Tony Dungy at a press conference on Friday. (Matt Rourke / Associated Press)

The NFL can be a place of uber-macho antics, of bluster and swag. Those are often necessary ingredients to survive among the alpha males. But it can also be a league of compassion and deep emotion, and regardless of how one feels about Mike Vick’s ability to play pro football again, the honesty and humility with which the Philadelphia Eagles organization has handled his signing cannot be overlooked.

All parties involved in this endeavor — Vick, his mentor Tony Dungy, Eagles coach Andy Reid and owner Jeffrey Lurie — distinguished themselves at this morning’s press conference. They were willing to open themselves up, stripping away any facades, not trying to gloss over Vick’s transgressions. They provided a prism into the complexities and conflicted emotions that come with signing a player a few weeks out from serving time in federal prison for his central role in a dog fighting operation.

Vick was an open book. There were no attempts to frame the questions, or limit certain inquiries. He said he’d answer any question and he did so with aplomb. The three-time Pro Bowler was blunt in assessing where he is, expressing remorse for his “terrible” actions, not making excuses, answering all questions related to dog fighting head on. He thanked many, from Commissioner Roger Goodell to Dungy to agent Joel Segal, as well as friends and family, for “helping re-define me as an individual.”

I didn’t detect someone who was being prodded or coached on what to say.

To me, as someone who has covered far too many press conference to remember, Vick seemed to be going on raw emotion and speaking from his heart. It’s clear he looks up to Eagles starting quarterback Donovan McNabb as a role model on and off the field. Vick knows he will do well to conduct himself in the future as McNabb has done throughout his career.

There was no pretense about where Vick stands. “I just want to fit in where I can,” he said, acknowledging that it would foolish and prideful to think he could step in after two years away from the game and be a starter right away.

“I’ve got to crawl before I walk,” Vick said.

He also spoke of wanting “to be a complete quarterback,” a tacit nod to his limitations in the past, speaking with reverence of the work Reid has done with McNabb, hoping to be his next star pupil.

Vick is saying all the right things in terms of his commitment to helping the cause of animal rights, but as he said it will be his actions and not his words that carry the day there. He spoke of wanting to “help more animals than I hurt,” and that even the slightest misstep will cost him his career given the stipulations of his conditional reinstatement to the league.

“You only get one shot at a second chance,” Vick said.

I was most touched about what Vick revealed in terms of the humiliation involved with having to spend two years away from loved ones — his fiancée and three young children — all because of his pursuit of “pointless” and “inhumane” crimes.

“I asked them for a second chance to be a better father,” Vick said.

Yes, all of this was of his own making, and easily avoidable, but here, in this moment, was a man stripped bare.

Lurie created no illusions about his own trepidation about ultimately making this decision. There was no front being put on here, no sales job or PR to begin to win people over. Just a frank and riveting discourse — often a glimpse into Lurie’s own inner back-and-forth as this process unfolded — from one of the NFL’s most respected owners.

Lurie called making the final call on signing Vick, “an impossibly difficult decision,” and spoke at length about his own love for dogs, mentioning how Vick had “perpetrated horrendous behavior.” Lurie had to be convinced, over time, in speaking with Vick, Reid, Dungy and McNabb, that this was the right thing to do.

Success, to Lurie, will only come off the field, in terms of Vick’s commitment to being a better person and inspiring others to do the same, and wanting Vick to “create social change.” He will not accept anything less than Vick’s best effort about being a beacon in the community and tirelessly working towards crusading against animal cruelty. Otherwise, Lurie said this decision will have been a “terrible mistake.”

“If he is not proactive he won’t be on the team, because that is part of the agreement,” Lurie said of Vick’s civic responsibility.

Lurie also referred to Vick’s strict covenant with the commissioner, in terms of remaining eligible to stay in the league.

“There’s no room for error on Michael’s part,” Lurie said.

Lurie’s social conscious was a driving force, not only in terms of trying to come to grips with employing a man who had committed such crimes, but in his desire to see Vick succeed and benefit society as a whole. He came away from his time spent with Vick impressed. “I saw a man that was extremely remorseful,“ Lurie said.

Without McNabb campaigning so hard to see his friend signed, Lurie would not have made this decision.

“If the thought hadn’t come from Donovan originally, there’s no way I would have done it,” Lurie said.

Ultimately, on the football side of things, Lurie conceded that given the strength of his roster and his team’s winning mentality, it’s a move he didn’t have to make. But he spoke of how often “unpopular and counterintuitive” decisions prove the most fruitful, and noted the wrinkles and “unpredictable ways,” in which an athlete with Vick’s singular skill set can help a team.

The only time in the entire affair in which anyone took something close to a forceful tone was when Reid addressed the signing from a football standpoint. It’s a role Reid readily accepts — he is generally gruff and blunt and unforgiving with the media, deflecting attention from the players when he can — and his ability to bully, if you will, is another reason the Eagles make so much sense for Vick. Protestors won’t ruffle Reid.

Twice Reid made it clear that as much as Vick is a work in progress, there are ways he can be deployed right away. “He will contribute,” Reid said. Reid would not elaborate on schemes or formations — though some variant on a Wildcat approach makes total sense — not wanting to tip his hand to opponents, but offered advice to the assembled reporters.

“You can ask defensive coordinators on other teams if they’re worried about, how Vick can be utilized,” the coach said.

– Jason La Canfora

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