It was, all agreed, a transformative performance, up there with anything Unitas, Montana, Marino ever produced: Vick finished 20 of 28 for 333 yards and a career-high passer rating of 150.7, and added 80 yards rushing to pass Steve Young for second all time on the career QB rushing list, prompting Young, the normally prosaic ESPN analyst, into a full-on Johnnie Cochran. "We saw the full fruition," he said, "of the position." The Hall of Fame requested Vick's jersey. Media, fans and teammates had their come-to-Jesus moment: Vick had single-handedly put Philadelphia in the Super Bowl conversation and himself firmly in the MVP debate. Asked, if only out of politeness, about the Eagles' defense against Washington, Philly cornerback Dimitri Patterson batted the question away: "We got Michael Vick. We got Michael Vick. That's all I'm going to keep saying. Amazing. Magnificent. He's playing out of his mind right now. The guy is going as good as any quarterback in the league. Bottom line: He's in his prime, he's showing it, and it's a beautiful thing."
That Vick has 11 touchdown passes, no interceptions and a career-high 62.8% completion rate and leads the NFL in passer rating at 108.7 is good news in Philly. So is the fact that Vick survived a ferocious Giants rush on Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, ran for one touchdown and just skirted defensive end Osi Umenyiora's outstretched fingers to launch the fourth-quarter, fourth-down, game-winning pitch to LeSean McCoy that put the Eagles alone atop the NFC East at 7--3. That he is texting friends he's going to get better is bad news for opponents. But his can only be a football story until the game ends, and that presents the league—and the public—with a thorny problem.
The Eagles' last two games were much-hyped events, and Vick's rise will continue to boost ratings. But in a season of middling teams, few breakout players and the numbing travails of Brett Favre and Randy Moss, does commissioner Roger Goodell really want the Vick narrative to hijack the conversation, making a convicted felon—a man many believe is a sociopath—the new face of the NFL?
As long as Vick remains healthy it may be inevitable. Because, really, who's not going to pay attention? The Vick paradox is simple: You can't look away from the beauty, and you can't quite forget the brutality. His game is rivetingly kinetic, and now that Vick's commitment to football is making itself evident, it's impossible not to wonder how good he can be. Yet his infamous stewardship of the Bad Newz Kennels created a discomfort that has endured longer than the usual distaste for bad actors. On Thursday, Goodell stopped in Philadelphia and, 14 months after he lifted Vick's playing ban, spoke of the "message" behind Vick's rebound, the "lessons" to be learned. "We need our kids to see that kind of success story," Goodell told The Philadelphia Inquirer. "This young man has turned his life around, and he's going to contribute." But Vick's tale is not that tidy, and it's far from finished.
It wasn't even halftime of Vick's Monday-night rampage against the Redskins when Arizona Cardinals defensive tackle Darnell Dockett tweeted, "Vick doing so good, he got dogs cheering for him." Afterward Jackson, the Philly wideout, said the pregame Eagles had been "like pit bulls, ready to get out of the cage," and the snickering hasn't stopped yet. The next morning a New Jersey woman hit the streets with her bulldog in a shirt that read MICHAEL VICK: NEVER FORGET. The Eagles signed Vick in August 2009, an unpopular move that they are still defending.
"I'm proud we were the team that gave him a second chance," says Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie. "I think the country is really built around this. It's an important principle. Because he served his time. If he didn't serve his time? There's not a chance in hell we would've done this."
Even Vick's actual 19-month prison term is hardly a thing of the past. Off the field, of course, he must follow the prescribed dictates of his probation. (Among them, to the dismay of one of his daughters, he is not to "engage in the purchase, possession or sale of any canine.") But it's a daily factor onfield too; to hear him tell it, Vick would not be the new, spongelike student of the game, the one watching extra film and doing extra work, if he hadn't been locked up. He'd been a classic last-in, first-out locker room presence before that, skating by on talent alone, his car littered with unwatched game film, living "a lie," as he told Mora in their extraordinary exchange last month on NFL Network, "everything from A to Z." Only prison forced him to change.
"That's the truth," Vick told SI last week. "I had to go through what I went through to be where I am now. I find myself in a position where I'm willing to listen; I've got coaches who are going to coach me regardless of what or how I feel. If I've got an attitude one day, or not just feeling it at the moment—I'm going to get coached, and they don't care: You step on that field, you better be ready. And I respect that to the fullest. It brings out the best in me."
Which may be, in the end, the most disturbing idea of all. Because if Vick is poised to challenge Tom Brady or Peyton Manning as the best quarterback in the game, it represents no small shift. There's a cultural heft assigned to the NFL's premier quarterback, the same kind of iconic significance once piled upon Mercury astronauts or Yankees centerfielders. And the implication here is simple. People speak of being conflicted about watching Vick, hating his crime and loving his game, as if the two can be separated. They can't. Think about it: Can it be that only hard time, earned by vile acts, made Vick the player he is now? For Vick to touch greatness, did dogs have to die?
As long as he keeps playing, and winning, those questions and that uncomfortable sensation aren't going away. We're seeing something special now but have no choice except to hear, amid the highlight banter and the roaring crowd, a sound rise as if from the cellar. The scrape of tooth on bone: It, too, is part of every wondrous pass, every perfect decision Michael Vick makes.