Michael Vick never has been better than with Dan Reeves. In their lone season together as starting quarterback and head coach, Vick made the Pro Bowl, set personal records and led the Atlanta Falcons to the playoffs.
Most impressive, Vick and the Falcons became the first visiting team to win a postseason game at Green Bay's Lambeau Field.
Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts, Don Meredith and the Dallas Cowboys, Y.A. Tittle and the New York Giants: They were among the quarterbacks and teams that perished in the playoffs at Lambeau before Vick and the Falcons prevailed.
It was January 2003. Vick was 22. His future was limitless.
This afternoon, following the most precipitous and bizarre fall in sports history, Vick returns to professional football as a member of the Philadelphia Eagles.
Nearly three years — 1,001 days, to be precise — have passed since his last regular-season game. But Reeves is convinced that Vick can regain the form that taxed defenses, captivated fans and prompted the Falcons to award him a $130 million contact.
"I know it's tough coming back not playing for two years," said Reeves, an NFL analyst for Westwood One radio. "But Mike's still a young man, and looking at the positive side of it, he hasn't been banged up the last two years, so he should be healthy.
"Certainly it's going to take some time to knock the rust off. You don't get back to the speed of the game and so forth, and he hasn't had that opportunity in preseason games. …
"I think his natural instincts are unbelievable at that position. That's what you could see when you looked at him in college, just his unbelievable ability to make plays. And that's what he showed as we were coaching him. I think he will be able to come back and be an excellent quarterback."
Vick's backstory is infamous. An all-star for Warwick High, Virginia Tech and the Falcons, he missed the last two seasons while serving a 20-month federal prison term for his role in an interstate dogfighting ring.
Vick, 29, lost tens of millions in football and endorsement income, filed for bankruptcy and bore the scorn of animal-rights advocates. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suspended him indefinitely.
The suspension lifted, Vick returns today as the Eagles play the Kansas City Chiefs.
"I'm just very thankful," Vick said. "I can't reiterate that enough. … My appreciation for the game has changed tremendously."
Oddly enough, this afternoon's venue, Philadelphia's Lincoln Financial Field, was the site of Vick's last regular-season game, New Year's Eve 2006. The Falcons lost to the Eagles, concluding a 7-9 season that cost coach Jim Mora his job and branded Vick a "coach-killer."
Then a starter and face of the franchise, Vick is now a reserve and a curiosity.
Even with incumbent starter Donovan McNabb likely sidelined with a broken rib, Vick is expected to back up Kevin Kolb, seldom-used in two previous NFL seasons. But Eagles coach Andy Reid and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg have designed plays that employ Vick in a wildcat, or shotgun, formation.
With Vick lined up several yards behind center and taking a direct snap, the package, in theory, showcases the speed that made him the game's fastest quarterback and the first in NFL history to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season — he gained 1,039 in 2006.
"I was the wildcat originator," Vick said, "so it's not foreign territory to me. … It's almost like backyard ball, but it's become quite (popular) in this league now. Everybody's doing it, so I'm excited about my role."
As a second-year pro under Reeves in 2002, Vick established career bests for passing yards (2,936) and passer rating (81.6). His rating that season surpasses those posted last year by three playoff quarterbacks: Tennessee's Kerry Collins, Baltimore's Joe Flacco and Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger.
Vick 'very thankful'
Michael Vick turns in his red practice jersey today for his first regular-season game action in three years.