Flowery Branch – Not so long ago, it was the first question posed during a Falcons-Eagles week. This time it was the last. After Matt Ryan’s media session ended, someone mentioned that he’d almost gotten away without having to speak about Michael Vick. “It was close,” Ryan conceded, and he smiled.
And that’s how we know: The hot-button issue of Vick vis-a-vis the Falcons is no longer hot; heck, it’s not even a button. He has been gone since the summer of 2007, when he was indicted on federal charges involving dogfighting. He last played for the Falcons on Dec. 31, 2006. He has now been an ex-Falcon nearly as long as he was a Falcon. He has moved on, and so have they.
Only four Falcons — offensive linemen Todd McClure and Tyson Clabo, defensive end John Abraham and wide receiver Roddy White — ever played alongside Vick here. When you ask the current Falcons about their franchise quarterback, they don’t think of a guy wearing No. 7; they think instead of the guy who wears No. 2.
“That’s a thing of the past,” said free safety Thomas DeCoud, who was drafted in April 2008, at which time Vick was in prison. “Coach (Mike) Smith came in and said, ‘This is a new regime, a new day.’ We’ve got Matt Ryan, and he’s our elite quarterback.”
Three times, the Eagles with Vick have been scheduled to meet the Falcons with Ryan. On Dec. 6, 2009, Vick returned to the building he once filled and, playing as a sub in a lopsided Philadelphia victory, led his team to two late touchdowns. This sparked considerable glee among much of the crowd. One thing, though: Ryan didn’t play because of injury. It was one of the two games he has missed since being drafted by the Falcons.
The next October, Ryan played but Vick — by then the Eagles’ No. 1 quarterback — did not. He was injured, and Kevin Kolb engineered a two-touchdown home victory that wasn’t that close. But last September it finally happened: Ryan played, Vick played (though he left late with an injury) and the Falcons surged from behind to win in the Dome. Unlike the Vick-returns-to-Atlanta lollapalooza of December 2009, the 2011 game almost seemed a mere regular-season collision of gifted teams.
For Sunday’s game, we can remove the “almost.” Said Vick, speaking Wednesday with Atlanta media via a conference call: “It’s really just another game. It’s two good football teams going head-to-head. There’s nothing extra added.”
As we know, there was a time when Vick was more than just a football player. He arrived hailed as a savior, and his success — two postseason berths and two playoff victories accomplished in dashing style — made it seem as if he had indeed revolutionized his position. Then the Falcons stopped making the playoffs and Vick drew criticism for not being a Real Quarterback (a charge that was always ludicrous, by the way), and then he got indicted.
Some deemed him a scoundrel, others a victim. The 2007 season, which started without Vick and ended with Bobby Petrino bolting for Arkansas, was a new low in the history of a franchise that had known many lows. But that was, we note again, a while ago.
It’s 2012, and Vick’s years as a Falcon, for both better and worse, belong to history. “There was a certain buzz around the stadium when he showed up,” said McClure, who remembers Vick fondly. “You saw so many No. 7 jerseys it was unbelievable.”
And now? Said McClure of these 6-0 Falcons: “Now there’s a buzz around the whole team. It’s not just one guy.”
Said White, who on the day Vick was sentenced to 23 months in jail flashed a T-shirt bearing the words “Free Mike Vick” during a Monday night loss to the Saints: “He did a lot of good things when he was here.”
He did. But he hasn’t been here to play football since 2006, and the Falcons have since found a quarterback who has won at an even higher rate. (Ryan is 48-22 as the Falcons’ starting quarterback; Vick was 40-30-1.) And there’s no debate as to which man has played better in 2012.
Ryan is among the leading early candidates for league MVP. Vick, who has made nearly twice as many turnovers (13) as the Falcons have as a team (seven), has again become a flashpoint, and this time the issue isn’t dogfighting. This time it’s, “Should he be benched?”
Times have changed. Michael Vick is no longer the face of the Atlanta Falcons, and he’s no longer the center of a raging social controversy. He’s just a quarterback for another team on the schedule, the quarterback of a team that stands between the Falcons and 7-0.
By Mark Bradley