Michael Vick is not Superman. He just plays him on TV. Otherworldly as his skills may appear, even the Atlanta Falcons' breathtaking young quarterback, who has been sidelined with a broken right leg since Aug. 16, concedes that he's powerless to put the derailed locomotive that is the 2003 Falcons back on track. But try telling that to team owner Arthur Blank's six-year-old son, Josh. Three weeks ago, on the evening after he had witnessed Atlanta's fifth consecutive defeat, a 36-0 capitulation to the Rams in St. Louis on Monday Night Football, Blank tucked his heartbroken child into bed and delivered the cold, hard truth.
"Daddy, are we ever gonna win another game?" Josh asked.
"Well, Josh, everybody's working hard," Arthur said. "The players have to play better, and the coaches have to coach better. When that happens, we'll start to win again."
"Is Mike gonna play next week?"
"No, Josh. His leg is still healing." "Can Mike play a teeny bit next week?"
"No, Josh. You have to understand, it's a team game. Mike Vick is a great player, but he's not Superman."
Throughout Atlanta—and the Falcons' training facility in Flowery Branch, Ga.—there are blank faces to match the Blank face that the team's owner saw staring up at him on that mid-October night. Everyone from besieged coach Dan Reeves to the most frustrated fan is asking the same question: How can the absence of one player, albeit the NFL's most exciting talent in years, trigger the sudden implosion of a franchise that was on the rise just a year ago?
Vick is baffled too. "I never thought this would happen," the 23-year-old quarterback said last Thursday. "I can't explain how bad it feels to watch my team suffer every week. Like everybody else, I wonder, How could this have been prevented?"
The answers are complicated because they reveal that Vick is that important to the team, and that playing without him exposed on-field shortcomings and locker-room dysfunction. "I guess sometimes' when your leader goes down, when there has been so much hype and expectation, it takes away everyone's sense of confidence," Vick says. "Guys can't come to grips with it, and it hurts the team."
Football fans are suffering, too. When Vick, heralded as the new face of the NFL, lay writhing on the Georgia Dome turf during a preseason game against the Baltimore Ravens, it was a disaster for the Falcons, their fans and the league. Unless you spent the 2002 season locked down as a reality-TV contestant, you're aware that Vick had a breakout year that was capped last January by the Falcons' historic playoff victory over the Green Bay Packers at snowy Lambeau Field. After that game, when Packers quarterback Brett Favre embraced Vick and said, "You're the future of this league," it was the sporting equivalent of a transfer of power atop the Capitol steps on Inauguration Day.