How the Eagles came to take a chance on Vick

Posted: July 23, 2010

Sixth of an eight-part series

Joe Banner's cell phone rang early on the morning of June 25. It was a Friday, and the sun was up, but just barely. On the line was Michael Vick's attorney, Billy Martin. Vick had an issue.

Martin took the Eagles' president through the headlines. There had been a party open to the public at a restaurant in Virginia Beach, Va., to celebrate Vick's 30th birthday. Afterward, in the parking lot nearby, one of the codefendants in Vick's dogfighting trial, Quanis Phillips, had been shot in the leg.

"I told Billy, 'The worst thing you could do is not tell me the absolute truth about what you know,' " Banner said. " 'Whether it's good or bad, just give me the truth. If you give me something not true and I find out, it won't sit well.' "

It still didn't sit well, but the Eagles' decision-makers eventually concluded that Vick had not committed an offense that called for his dismissal. He would still be an Eagle.

Why?

Because they need him.

It has been almost a year since the Eagles shocked the National Football League and signed Vick, a convicted felon who served 18 months at the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan. Vick had bankrolled and hosted a dogfighting operation at a property he owned in Virginia, and the details weren't pretty. He trained dogs to fight to the death, and when the dogs failed, he killed them with his own hands.

Dog lovers nationwide were outraged, as was an outspoken portion of the Eagles' fan base.

That the Eagles, an organization that has prided itself on employing high-character players, signed Vick was counterintuitive. That they have opted to stick by him during this latest lapse in judgment - particularly because owner Jeffrey Lurie had said Vick had next to zero margin for error - rekindled a debate that had quieted in the months after the Eagles originally brought Vick to Philadelphia.

The waiting game

This whole thing started long before Vick got out of prison, when Andy Reid started daydreaming about what it would be like to have Vick on the team.

Reid was a fan of the football player Vick had been for six seasons in Atlanta. His fleet feet. His escapability. His penchant for turning a nothing play into a big something. The possibility of having Vick as part of the Eagles' spread offense had Reid salivating.

For all the off-the-field issues, the Vick signing was a football decision.

"I think the bottom line was, [Reid] liked Michael Vick as a football player," said Cleveland Browns president Mike Holmgren, Reid's former boss in Green Bay and longtime friend.

Reid knew he had to be patient.

So Reid waited, and watched. In May, Vick was released into house arrest. He got a job working construction, and began to work with the Humane Society of the United States, telling his cautionary tale of missteps and mistakes.

Reid felt it was important that he not take his idea to his bosses - Lurie and Banner - too early. He wanted Vick to "build a resumé," to show that he was serious about rehabilitating his life, to "right his wrong."

Reid had seen his one son, Britt, go through the process. Britt had served five months in Montgomery County prison on drug- and gun-related offenses, and had just finished a rigorous 15-month drug court program. Reid had seen Britt's rehabilitation firsthand and was simultaneously watching his oldest son, Garrett, who also was incarcerated for drug offenses, navigate a similar route.

"Britt and Michael kind of went through the same phases, and then Garrett came out later and is going through those same phases," Reid said in June, before Vick's birthday party. "I'm not sure any of us are experts at it, and I'm not sure there's an answer for it, but I thought at least I'd seen that side of it. I'd spent two years every Thursday night at these different jails, and I'd gotten to know a lot of people, not only the guards but also the inmates.

"You find out there are some people who goofed up, but there are some pretty good people in there, and they just kind of messed up their life somewhere along the line, some more than others. Then you get a feel that some are going to change, and some aren't."

Reid pointed to the phases of accountability most incarcerated people go through: "It's everybody else's fault; I screwed up, I'm wrong; and, I screwed up, and I'm not ever coming back here."

Reid talked with Britt about Vick. He wanted to know what his son thought.

"Not everybody gets to that third phase," Britt told his father, according to Reid. "You've got to figure out if he's really there."

And the only way to do that was to talk to Vick himself.

'A million questions'

Banner first heard about Reid's radical idea from Howie Roseman. The Eagles were at training camp at Lehigh University, and Reid presented the idea of bringing Vick up to camp to Tom Heckert, then the general manager, and Roseman, then the team's vice president of player personnel. Reid laid out his case, then asked Heckert and Roseman a simple question:

"Do you think I'm completely out of my mind?"

Later in the evening, Banner called Roseman regarding another matter, and Roseman said, "Oh by the way . . ."

"What's your gut reaction to that?" Roseman asked Banner after telling him of Reid's idea.

"Well, I'd have a million questions I'd want to ask," Banner replied. "How serious did he seem about it?"

Reid was serious enough that he called Banner himself that night last July.

As Reid and Banner talked about Vick, Banner was "intrigued by the idea," he said, but he had a litany of questions for Reid.

What would Vick's role be?

What would the players think?

Are you prepared for the possible public reaction?

What would you do if we get on the road and the bus' path to the stadium is blocked by protesters?

Is it worth it?

"Depending on exactly where Michael was health-wise and shape-wise, it could be a radical move, from a football perspective," Banner said. "Andy was kind of excited about it. But all these other things I was very worried about."

Next, Reid called Lurie, who was vacationing on Martha's Vineyard. Reid laid out his argument, making the point that Vick had done his time, had shown he was sincerely interested in turning his life around, and that he could have a substantial impact on the football team. Reid also said he had talked to former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy, who was mentoring Vick, and to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

"I thought timing was important," Reid said of his decision to wait until training camp to present the idea to Lurie and Banner. "I'm sure a lot of [other coaches] went to their owners early [about Vick], but that wasn't a pretty picture at that time. I had to know to present it to them that [Vick] really wanted to change. A lot of them say it, but they don't back it with action. I think that's probably where my experience having seen it helped."

Reid knew this about Lurie: "Jeffrey doesn't overreact to anything," he said. "He's not afraid to tell you no, but he's not afraid to tell you yes."

It would be several days before Reid got his answer.

On the same page

There had to be unanimity. On that point, everyone agreed.

"If there wasn't consensus," Banner said, "Andy would not have overruled anyone. We would not have done it. . . . Everybody in the end had to say, 'I'm OK doing this.' "

Each decision-maker had his own level of "I'm OK with it." Reid, obviously, was driving the train. Roseman, who is aggressive by nature, was also on board. Banner was concerned about the public backlash but intrigued by the on-the-field possibilities.

Lurie was the one who had to be convinced.

The Eagles make decisions in concert all the time. They pride themselves on their open-door setup. Anyone is free to offer an opinion - about a free agent, a potential draft pick, a personnel move - but Reid has final say on all football decisions. About this fact, they are clear.

But this decision was different, for a couple of reasons. One, it was "too big, with too many implications," Banner said, for there not to be total agreement. And two, Christina Lurie, Jeffrey's wife, was involved.

While she has no say in football decisions - and doesn't want any - Christina Lurie decides what charities to support, and how the Eagles Youth Partnership, the franchise's wide-reaching philanthropic arm, will spend its time and energy. She has made the Eagles the most environmentally progressive franchise in the NFL. The aesthetics of the team, how it looks and feels to consumers, that's all Christina Lurie.

And, perhaps most important, Christina Lurie has her husband's ear.

"We had a lot of give and take," she said.

To hear Christina Lurie tell it, Reid brought Donovan McNabb into the equation to make the argument for signing Vick. McNabb and Vick had been friends for a while, and McNabb, like Reid, felt Vick deserved a second chance.

"They said, 'We feel we're the one organization that's strong enough to be there for him,' " Christina Lurie said. "It was a very difficult decision."

Neither of the Luries actually made a strong case for how the Vick signing aligned with their conscience. They pride themselves on being free thinkers.

"At the end of the day, they're trying to win games," former Eagles offensive lineman John Welbourn said. "If your grandmother would help them win a game, they would pick her up tomorrow."

Welbourn wasn't knocking the decision. He said Vick "incurred his debt" to society and deserved to play. But from a football perspective, he mused "What a way to put pressure on McNabb."

In the case of Vick, ultimately it was Lurie's 16-year reputation as one of 32 owners in the NFL that was on the line. And initially, Lurie wasn't sure. He was a dog lover. He had been repulsed by Vick's behavior. Now, his head coach wanted to bring Vick here?

"Jeff was very torn, no question the most ambivalent about this," Banner said. "He was very worried about the outside world, not only how they would view it, but how it could affect things.

"It's one thing if you trade Donovan McNabb and people think that's crazy. They're not going to come down and protest, they're just going to think you made a bad football decision."

But if the Eagles were going to sign Vick, "we understood that it could have a lot of implications that could be unpleasant," Banner said.

A grilling by Lurie

Michael Vick was nervous. He was in Reid's office at the NovaCare Complex, and there was nowhere to look except into Reid's eyes.

"Excuse my language, hell, yeah I was scared," Vick said. "I was nervous. I mean, you're sitting down with Andy Reid. This is one of the greatest coaches of all time, if you ask me. He's sitting there across from you, and he's looking you in your eyes. You can't do anything but tell him the truth and be forthright with him and just let it all out. That's all I did, because he was ice grilling me."

Reid asked Vick point-blank: Are you a better person now than you were before prison?

"That's what I thought I was," Vick said. "I understood everything he said at that given moment and what he was trying to say. . . . I wanted him to trust me. I wanted him to be able to trust anything I'd say, no second-guessing, no anything like that."

But Reid had already been sold. The tougher sell was Lurie.

Vick once had the complete trust of Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank, but that was long gone.

"I just got grilled," Vick said of his meeting with Lurie. Lurie "wanted to know the truth, and was I remorseful. The meeting was uncomfortable, but that was the most important one. That was it. Just telling the truth. Just telling the truth."

Vick's voice trailed off, and he paused.

"He wanted to know if I was going to be a reflection of the program in a positive light," Vick said. "I think that was his main concern. 'When you put on that Philadelphia Eagles uniform, you represent a lot of people.' I think that's what he wanted to know. Could I do that?

"You can't say it was a hard sell. I just think he believed in everything I was saying."

Through the process, Vick was aware that Reid had been through a similar situation with his sons. It was the first thing he thought of when he learned the Eagles were interested in him.

"You know, things happen for a reason," Vick said. "I think I'm here for a reason. Maybe Coach Reid went through what he went through for a reason. They're all trying times, and you just find a way to persevere and be resilient through those times. And you see other people who are in the same situations.

"Sometimes you want mercy for yourself. You want people to have sympathy for you. Some people do. Some people don't. Once you get through those trying times, you see people are there for you and just helpful in every situation. And you know you want to lend that helping hand to someone else. And that's what he did for me."

Doing the deal

Getting everyone to agree on signing Vick was one thing. Getting a deal done was another. Vick's camp was insistent on a one-year deal. The Eagles wouldn't budge. Two years minimum. That was, as Banner said, "non-negotiable."

The Eagles didn't know how long it would take Vick to get back into NFL shape. They knew they were going to take a public relations hit, and no matter Vick's physical condition, they were going to have to invest countless hours and energy into integrating him into their offense. If, after the season, another team was in need of a starting quarterback and was willing to offer the Eagles something for Vick, they wanted to have that option.

"We thought we deserved the right to benefit from that, since we were the ones taking the risk of bringing him back," Banner said.

It got to a point where Vick's representatives walked away from the table, and told the Eagles, "You're not going to get him," according to Banner.

Vick's agent, Joel Segal, did not return messages requesting comment for this story.

Eventually, Vick came back to the table and agreed to a two-year deal. It was worth $1.6 million the first year - none of which was guaranteed - and, if the team picked up the option, nearly $5.6 million the second year, about a third of which was guaranteed.

The only thing left to do was get Lurie's approval. He had been out of town the day Reid met with Vick. So, not until the morning of the Eagles' first preseason game at Lincoln Financial Field did Lurie shake Vick's hand. Lurie walked away feeling the same way Reid did. The deal was announced that night, Aug. 13.

"We both felt very strongly that we believe in second chances," Christina Lurie said. "That was what ultimately made us acquiesce.

"It was hard, because a lot of our employees were also initially really surprised, and friends of ours were, too. But in the end, I think they understood it goes beyond your personal [feelings] and really is about giving somebody a second chance. If we can't do it, who is going to do it?"

The backlash

There was plenty of backlash. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals condemned the Eagles for hiring Vick. Protests were held outside the Eagles' practice facility and at the stadium. Initially sponsors were edgy. Many fans were, and still are, upset that their beloved Eagles would employ a convicted dog killer.

But it wasn't as bad as the Eagles had feared.

And, in house, Vick was everything the Eagles could have wanted in an employee. He got to the practice facility early, and stayed late. He worked with the coaches before practice, and after. He lived in the weight room, reconditioned his body, and studied film. In the locker room, he was the model teammate, encouraging and supportive.

"I thought he did a heck of a job with the hard work before, during, and after practice," said Eagles offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg. "He really worked hard."

On the field, Vick didn't have the impact that Reid had originally imagined. It took him most of the season to lose weight and get his legs back. And often he was in an impossible position - in for only a single play, but expected to make a significant impact.

Vick had a breakthrough game in Week 13, against his old team, the Falcons, in their building. He scored his first touchdowns of the season - one rushing, one passing - and helped the Eagles to a 34-7 win.

Two weeks later, Vick bruised his quadriceps and missed the last two games of the regular season. His regular-season stats: 6 of 13 passing for 86 yards and one touchdown, 24 carries for 95 rushing yards and two touchdowns.

In the playoffs against Dallas, however, Vick came in for a play and showed why the Eagles had brought him to Philadelphia in the first place. Under center, he faked a handoff, then danced behind the line before hitting Jeremy Maclin with a perfectly led 20-yard pass that Maclin took in for a 76-yard touchdown that tied the game, 7-7.

It is that kind of play that the Eagles hope to see more of from Vick this season.

"The surprising thing to me after the fact was that he didn't play more," said Holmgren, the Browns' president.

The 'perfect' No. 2

After the season, once the raw sting from the Dallas loss had eased, the Eagles' brass had a decision to make about their quarterbacks. McNabb, Vick, and Kevin Kolb were all entering the final year of their contracts. It was time to make a move.

To hear Banner explain it, never was Vick available to be traded. Maybe that was because there was little market for him - general manager Howie Roseman said teams were offering "50 cents on the dollar." But Banner insisted that, if the Eagles were going to move McNabb or Kolb, they needed a proven player in the No. 2 spot.

That player, Banner said, was Vick.

"For our mind, the least likely person we were ever going to move was Vick," Banner said, "because then what are we going to do? Have a rookie backup? Sign some other veteran?"

Neither of those scenarios was appealing.

"Michael was the perfect guy," Banner said, referring to the backup role. "We didn't view the money Michael was making to be out of line. The backup quarterbacks now are making $3-4 million on multiyear deals. So Michael will make $5 [million]. And many of those quarterbacks won't even see the field. Michael will have a role. So, it's not a bad investment."

It is, however, if Vick can't get on the field.

The party incident

The text, from an NFL quarterback on another team, came across on July 5. So what's truly going on there in philly with MV situation?

It was a good question.

Vick contacted Reid within a few hours of the incident. Martin called Banner.

Banner asked Martin to take him through, detail by detail, what happened at the party. Although Martin assured Banner that his backup quarterback hadn't been involved in the shooting and wasn't present for it, Banner's immediate reaction was that Vick, at the very least, had used horrible judgment attending a party that was open to the public in his native Virginia. He hoped that was all Vick had used.

After Banner got off the phone, he had a series of internal discussions with Lurie, Reid, and Roseman. The four agreed not to consider whether to cut Vick until after the police investigation had played out. Meanwhile they would investigate on their own, as would the National Football League.

Banner said that he spoke to "a number of people" in Virginia who were involved in the investigation.

"Everything that came out of the police investigation and everything we learned from our own calls and inquiries was completely consistent with the story I was initially told, much of which is very different from what was and still has been reported," Banner said.

Banner would not disclose what the Eagles have learned about what happened in the early hours of June 25. But the police subsequently determined that Vick did not shoot Phillips, and they have not charged Vick with any crime.

"There has never been any evidence that I have seen that Michael Vick did anything wrong," said Larry Woodward, one of Vick's attorneys. "He didn't assault anybody. He didn't do any kind of thing that was even close to being wrong.

"The prosecutors, the police, the Eagles, the league, the probation office, those aren't people who represent Michael Vick or have a duty to clear Michael Vick. Every one of them have come to the conclusion that Michael acted appropriately and wasn't there for the shooting."

Woodward would not get into the details of what happened at the party or afterward. He said he didn't know who shot Phillips, only that it wasn't his client.

"There wasn't any altercation that had anything to do with any shooting or Mike," Woodward said.

Woodward said that, given the fact that Goodell reinstated Vick last summer and that the Eagles signed him, Vick was never afraid he would lose his job, even though Goodell and the Eagles had said his margin for error was slim.

"He believed and was very confident that the Eagles and the league would treat him fairly," Woodward said. "So I would have to say from my perspective, we never had any concerns that somebody would just go off half-cocked and make some decision based on a press report."

Banner did know one thing.

"It was a mistake in judgment to attend that party and put himself in a position where anything can happen," Banner said. "Beyond that, nothing came to us that was problematic. So at that point, in our mind, that certainly was not an error that rose to the level of resulting in consequences."

Nevertheless, some fans and media members have clamored for the Eagles to release Vick. They weren't happy the Eagles brought Vick here in the first place, and they certainly weren't happy the Eagles were going to hang on to him.

Lurie left the country on a planned vacation four days after Vick's party. He has not commented on the incident, but Banner said Lurie kept an open mind during the investigation. The NFL interviewed Vick on June 25 but has yet to announce whether it will penalize Vick, even for just using bad judgment.

As the city and much of the sports world wonders why the Eagles haven't cut ties with Vick, however, the answer is simple: They want to keep him because they need him. The Eagles want Vick to be Kolb's backup. They want him running trick plays in the spread offense. They like the flexibility he gives them, and they've invested a lot already.

If the Eagles are forced to cut ties, their track record says they'll do it cleanly. But they'd rather not do it at all.

"If the circumstance would've been different, we would've had that conversation," Banner said. "It's not like he's got immunity or tenure here."

Asked if he stands by his decision to bring Vick here, Banner said he did, but added a caveat.

"This story isn't over," he said of Vick as an Eagle. "We'll see in the end whether it was the right thing to do or the wrong thing to do. It's premature to seal the verdict. At the end of the year, we'll see what he's done on and off the field."

Before Vick's birthday party, Lurie said he was eager to see more reward from his high-risk investment. "I would," Lurie said slowly. "I would. I would."

While the owner was persuaded to sign Vick, he's not necessarily convinced the reality was worth the risk.

"Let's talk about it a year from now," Lurie said. "I think he's got a real opportunity to have an impact this year, and I know there's a lot of work going in to utilizing him. We feel he's in shape and ready to roll in a big way, so we'll see."


Contact staff writer Ashley Fox

at 215-854-5064 or afox@phillynews.com.

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|