UNDER GATHERING darkness and intermittent rain, before the playing of a football game without meaning, Michael Vick ran around a little and threw the ball a little before becoming a civilian for the rest of the evening. It was the most important thing that happened yesterday at Lincoln Financial Field.
Because Andy Reid has never had a more critical player than Vick, not in the dozen years he has been coaching the Eagles.
That Vick will be playing in the wild-card game Sunday against the Green Bay Packers, bruised quad and all, goes without saying. He did not come as far as he has to see it all fall apart so quickly. What nobody knows, though, is Vick's ability to lift his game - and his team - on a bum leg.
It is the question of the week, the uncertainty that will hang in the air until kickoff on Sunday afternoon. As currently constructed, it is hard to imagine the Eagles making a playoff run without Vick at the top of his game. There would seem to be no arguing with that notion, either. On whom else might they lean?
"The season starts today," Vick said. Channel 10's John Clark caught up with him as he was leaving the stadium last night, after the backup Eagles' 14-13 loss to the Dallas Cowboys.
"The season starts now," Vick said. "I'm very excited and very enthused. I know all the guys in the locker room are ready. We've got a week to prepare and we're going to take full advantage of it.
"This rest is really going to help. I'm taking full advantage of it and . . . getting my leg back to 100 percent and getting ready for the playoffs."
It is hard to know exactly how healthy Vick is or isn't. He has had leg issues, on and off, for a month. Reid, particularly unhelpful in his postgame interview, answered 24 questions yesterday and the longest reply was four sentences. Nine of the answers contained fewer than 20 words. Asked at one point if Vick would return to practice this week, Reid said, "Yes." Asked if he could have played yesterday, Reid said, "There's a chance he could have."
However, when asked about Vick being inactive, Reid said, "He did some rehab. He was out there in case we needed him in the 4-minute situation at the end of the game, if we needed him to take a direct snap under center with two quarterbacks out."
Apparently, though, Vick could not have handled that situation physically - or else he would have dressed as the emergency third quarterback.
Later, Reid said, "He feels good. He had some swelling in the thigh and he worked that out. He got a nice workout in today and he felt pretty good. I'll have to see how he feels after the workout, but he went in and rehabbed and I think he'll be fine."
And, well, he had better be. For the Eagles, there is no other realistic option for making a playoff run.
Yesterday, Kevin Kolb looked like a young guy who hadn't played in 2 months, and who was playing behind a backup offensive line with backup receivers. The defense looked solid, but it was against Cowboys third-string quarterback Stephen McGee - and the only thing Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has in common with McGee are the letters G and the E.
We have known for a couple of weeks now that this was the playoff matchup that would trouble the Eagles the most. That isn't to insult the Giants, but the combination of Rodgers and an Eagles secondary that has allowed 31 touchdown passes is hard to ignore for its combustible potential.
The only realistic antidote is Vick. The problem is that the Packers have held opposing quarterbacks to an NFL-low 65.0 passer rating this season, and they are among the league leaders in sacks. They got Chicago's Jay Cutler six times yesterday.
Vick has been blitzed mercilessly and, lately, no one has handled it particularly well - not Vick, not the offensive line, not the receivers who need to break off their routes when they recognize that the heat is coming at the quarterback. The whole thing is high pressure, high risk and high reward - and everybody knows it. Realistically, it was only Vick's ability to gut the Giants' defense with his legs in the fourth quarter on Dec. 19 that separates the Eagles from being playoff spectators on Sunday.
It was a magical burst, surrounded by concerns about turnovers and ineffectiveness. Everyone wonders if he can reach that height again. It is the question that hangs there, as the goes-around/comes-around thing comes around again, with the Packers against traveling here, just as in the season opener. So much has happened since - Kolb being injured near the end of the first half of that game, Vick taking over and making an MVP run, now this.
"[It's] way different," cornerback Joselio Hanson said. "At the beginning of the season we were young, but I think guys have grown up. And Vick only played a half last time, so we're a way different team now."
There is no getting past the importance of No. 7. The Eagles have never tried to win a playoff game with such a defensively challenged team. More than Donovan McNabb, more than Brian Westbrook, more than
Terrell Owens, more than Troy Vincent, more than any of the great names of the recent past, Michael Vick means the most to this team. If not him, who?
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