Some may never forgive his off-the-field behavior as a younger man, but on Sunday it was hard not to be moved as he penned an inspiring verse to a truly unlikely redemption song. More than three years after being investigated (and eventually convicted) for leading a dogfighting ring and then lying about it, Vick earned his first NFL victory as a member of the Philadelphia Eagles – 35-32 over the Detroit Lions at Ford Field – with his arm and his heart as much as with his famous feet. And he dealt with an onslaught of Lions pressure the way he learned to handle popular hatred: by standing in there and accepting it.
"You saw it," said Eagles offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg as he walked up the ramp from the field after the game. "He's got it all back. He's become, and is becoming, an excellent pocket passer."
You'll see the highlights of Vick's touchdowns – a 45-yard toss to DeSean Jackson(notes) and a 9-yard throw to Jeremy Maclin(notes) – but what you may not see is the punishment he took in the plays leading up to those strikes. He kept the Eagles' first drive alive with an across-the-body heave to tight end Brent Celek(notes) to convert a third-and-1 before being slammed to the ground.
On the very next play, he was roughed up by Lions linebacker Julian Peterson(notes) with a forearm to the helmet as he delivered a pass. But he got it away, and avoided a possible sack. Only a couple of moments later, Vick found Jackson streaking across the middle of the field and got him the ball. Vick ran down the field after his receiver, one finger in the air. When he finally got to his teammate, Jackson pushed the ball into Vick's chest. "This is the first," Jackson said of the TD pass. Vick pushed it back at him: "Nah, you keep it." Jackson shoved it back again, pointedly, and said: "No, this is the first." Vick then cradled the ball tightly and grinned as he received thunderous praise and pats from the bench. The one-time crossover star had officially crossed over to a new era in his career.
"The first" was only the beginning. In the second quarter, Lions defensive back Alphonso Smith(notes) got free in the backfield and had a running start at Vick. But the 30-year-old quarterback waited until the last possible second before flinging the ball seven yards ahead to Jason Avant(notes). Vick got leveled, but he also got the completion.
"He could have thrown it sooner and saved himself a hit," Avant joked after the game. "But with him you have to keep running. The play is not over. The play is longer."
Vick lengthened plays again and again, using his old football reputation of being a runner as a decoy for his new incarnation as a pass-first leader. He certainly still had his wheels ready – he was the Eagles' leading rusher in the first half with 40 yards – but his eyes always stayed down the field and his arm inevitably got the ball there. His signature drive came with less than two minutes left in the first half, as he took his team 89 yards in 59 seconds and delivered a stinging pass to Maclin right on the Lions' goal line.
Vick finished the first half with 186 yards passing and no interceptions. He added 98 more yards in the second half. And in one afternoon, he answered week-old questions about his capacity to win, months-old questions about his ability to come back from prison and shame, and years-old questions about his ability to hold the ball for that crucial extra second in the pocket. At least for Sunday, he was no longer a bankrupt failure, nor just a Wildcat quarterback or backup.
Before the game, coach Andy Reid noticed Vick seemed like "a kid in a candy store" with "a sparkle in his eye," but thoughts of his awful past stayed close to Vick. "I thought about it on the bus on the way over," he said. "It's been a long road. A lot of self-inflicted wounds."
Those wounds won't leave, but now he's got newer scars – bruises from hanging in the pocket and getting rid of the ball. Those wounds won't last as long, or mean nearly as much, but they say something about his ability to change as a man and as a player. "It's a blessing to play with him," Avant said. "He's overcome a lot."
Even with the game seemingly in hand, in the fourth quarter before the Lions started their rally, Vick scrambled away from the Detroit rush, ran toward the sideline, and seemed to want to head out of bounds. He surely could have. But instead he risked his body again by slowing and throwing 14 yards down the field for a first down to tight end Garrett Mills(notes). It was a pretty example of the blend between Vintage Vick and Vick 2.0.
And it was a shining example of a man who is no longer taking the easy way out.