As one of the more successful NFL coaches of his era, Andy Reid knows there are times a man in his position has to be a dispassionate arbiter of ability, even when it means ignoring what's in his gut or in his heart.
To understand Reid's regard for Vick and the extent to which the coach has been moved by the fallen star's dramatic revival, you have to assess his psyche on a very human level. Like more than many of us, Reid realizes that people have flaws and make poor decisions, and he believes wholeheartedly in the power of redemption.
To be sure, sticking with Vick was a logical decision. In the six quarters since Kolb went down with a concussion in the Eagles' season-opening defeat to the Packers, the three-time Pro Bowl quarterback has played at an insanely high level, one currently matched by only a few of his peers. Kolb, meanwhile, looked overwhelmed and ineffective in his first start as Donovan McNabb's(notes) anointed successor. Riding Vick's hot left hand, at least for now, is a no-brainer, and Reid could have had problems in the locker room had he stubbornly ignored the evidence in Vick's favor.
Make no mistake, however: Reid's move was steeped in emotion. While players around the league are excited by Vick's resurgence – most of the ones I've talked to are openly rooting for his success – no one in the NFL is more thrilled than the coach who gave him his second chance.
While visiting the Eagles' training camp in Bethlehem, Pa., last month, I had a long conversation with Reid for a story I was writing about Kolb's ascendance to the starting role. At one point I asked him if he thought Vick, who had performed impressively in Philly's preseason opener against the Jaguars two nights earlier, would get another shot at starting for an NFL team.
"Absolutely," Reid said. "I think he surely deserves that opportunity, by the way he's handled himself and by his play. As people could see the other night, he's got all his physical skills back in a big way."
Left unsaid was that Reid did not believe Vick's opportunity would come in Philly. The baton had been passed, and Vick was standing still in his lane while staring at the soles of Kolb's shoes.
Then something unexpected happened: Reid gestured for me to put down my pen and notepad. He spent the next several minutes talking about Vick in a highly complimentary and personal manner.
Obviously, as a journalist, I can't reveal the details of that conversation. But I don't think Reid would mind me sharing that he related Vick's attempts at rebounding from adversity and becoming a better person to some of the highly publicized issues that have plagued the coach's family.
Specifically, two of Reid's sons, Garrett and Britt, spent time in jail on drug-related offenses after having battled addiction for years. After the 2007 season the coach took a 39-day leave of absence to deal with family matters (he reportedly accompanied his sons to a detox center in Florida), and over the next two years he made regular prison visits. As of last month both Garrett and Britt were out of legal trouble and attempting to stay sober; their father certainly understood that doing so was a constant struggle.
On that day in Bethlehem, it was very clear to me that Reid was proud of Vick in a way that transcended the typical coach-player relationship. I don't think it's a stretch to say that Reid is somewhat of a father figure to the Falcons' former franchise quarterback who had everything, squandered his fortune, freedom and reputation because of his involvement in a dogfighting conspiracy and is now trying to show he has matured and evolved.
When the Eagles surprised everyone by signing Vick in August 2009, two weeks after he'd been conditionally reinstated by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and three months after his release from a federal penitentiary, my first thought was that McNabb, the Eagles' longtime quarterback, could be playing his last season in Philly. That turned out to be the case, but not because Vick had regained his old form. Rather, Kolb was the one who'd shined while starting two early season games in place of the injured McNabb, while Vick spent the season as more of a novelty act, making cameos in the Wildcat formation and throwing a pass every now and then, but impacting games very little.
Still, there were clues that Reid valued Vick more than the rest of the league comprehended. In early December the Eagles faced the Falcons in the Georgia Dome, and Reid did his best to ensure that Vick's return would be a memorable one. The quarterback ran for a 5-yard touchdown in the third quarter, his first end-zone visit since 2006, and threw a 5-yard scoring pass to Brent Celek(notes) (on the heels of a 43-yard hookup with Reggie Brown(notes)) in garbage time of Philly's 34-7 victory.
Later that month Vick was voted by teammates as the Eagles' recipient of the Ed Block Courage Award, a controversial selection that Reid defended to reporters, saying, "I'm not sure you can explain it, unless you've kind of gone through it here with him. … Until you've been with him for the hours that his teammates have been with him and seen him through all these different things that he's had to go through, that time-tested part of it, you can't appreciate it. I don't expect everybody to understand it."
There was also the organizational decision to pay Vick a $1.5 million roster bonus in March and, even after trading McNabb and anointing Kolb as his successor, to keep Vick around for a second season, despite a relatively high $5.2 million salary. In July, after Virginia Beach police began investigating a shooting that occurred outside a club where Vick was hosting a 30th birthday party (Quanis Phillips, one of Vick's co-defendants in the dogfighting case, was wounded), there were reports that the Eagles were seriously considering cutting ties with the quarterback, but he remained on the roster.
Clearly, Reid had an affinity for Vick, and the coach's faith began to make more sense this summer when the quarterback began showing flashes of his old form.
Then came the regular-season opener against the Pack, with Kolb looking skittish before suffering the second-quarter concussion and Vick making plays with his arm and legs while instantly establishing a comfort zone.
The discrepancy was so obvious to many observers, including an anecdotal majority of Eagles fans, that there were immediate calls for Reid to make Vick the starter. At the time, my feeling was that there was no way such a switch would happen in the near future, if at all. Reid, a headstrong man with relatively solid job security, had so much invested in Kolb – after all, he had the audacity to trade McNabb to the division-rival Redskins, as if taunting his longtime passer to come back and prove he was better than his ex-backup – that logic suggested he'd do everything he could to give the young quarterback a chance to succeed.
What I underestimated was the possibility that Reid, like so many of us – and perhaps more than any of us – would get caught up in the emotion of the moment. He obviously had the best view in the house last Sunday at Ford Field when Vick, with Kolb still recovering from his concussion, started against the Lions in Detroit and evoked images of his past glories. In some ways, as Reid suggested in the news conference he held Tuesday after announcing his decision to bench Kolb, Vick looked even better than before.
Reid also said, "Michael Vick is playing out of his mind right now, and it's a beautiful thing."
He's right – this is a startling and compelling story that could end with Vick leading the Eagles to present and/or future glory, and I give the coach credit for adapting to the circumstances and letting it play out.
This probably isn't the way that Reid and the franchise's front-office power brokers, team president Joe Banner and general manager Howie Roseman, planned it when they put McNabb on the trading block, and I was certainly critical of their approach at the time.
Now? I'm not so sure that Banner, Roseman and Reid – and owner Jeffrey Lurie, who took a major organizational risk signing Vick in the first place – weren't shrewder than I or anyone else realized. Dealing McNabb makes a lot more sense if you suspect you might have a young successor and a revitalized star on the roster, and maybe they understood all along that this was a possibility.
Granted, there may be other plot twists to come, and if Vick's play levels off Reid will face plenty of second-guessing and criticism. The relationships involved are non-acrimonious – Vick genuinely likes Kolb and respects him as a player; Kolb feels similarly toward Vick; Reid, at least up until now, has enjoyed a strong coach-player bond with Kolb – but there will inevitably be awkwardness at the team facility, even if the Eagles are successful.
For now, give Reid credit for having initiated a bold move that makes sense on both rational and visceral levels. It has so much potential. Vick has a chance to surpass Ray Lewis(notes) as the greatest emblem of redemption the NFL has known, and I hope a certain quarterback in Pittsburgh midway through a four-game suspension is taking notes.
I don't know how far Vick can take this, or how long he can make the ride last. All I can tell you is that right now, you can be sure that the coach who gave him this opportunity is very, very proud.
Now, on to the top-to-bottom trip through the league, again starting with the defending champs.
1. New Orleans Saints: Who needs style points?
3. Pittsburgh Steelers: Who needs an offense?
16. Philadelphia Eagles: If Michael Vick keeps bailing out his leaky offensive line by scrambling away from pressure, should his linemen pitch in to buy him a Rolex at season's end?
23. Arizona Cardinals: Did Joey Porter(notes) really hear teammates laughing in the showers after Sunday's drubbing at the Georgia Dome, or was he confused by the sound of Cardinals players coughing at the behest of Falcons defenders?
32. Buffalo Bills: Does anybody have any idea what these guys are doing – and if so, can you kindly enlighten me?
- the Eagles