Michael Vick, not Donovan McNabb, must now save Reid

Originally published on Thursday, Sept. 30, 2010.

The most ironic twist in the soap operatic return of Donovan McNabb to Philadelphia is his role in one of the other leading characters being with the Eagles in 2010.

That's right: Andy Reid.

Oh, sure, there has been plenty of talk about McNabb's relationship with his surprise successor, Michael Vick. McNabb had virtual veto power last year when Reid decided to sign Vick with an eye on using him in a version of the Wildcat offense.

"Donovan opened his arms to Michael coming here," Reid said Wednesday. "He wanted him here. So I think they've got a really good relationship, and I think Michael looks up to him. "

But McNabb has had a more significant impact on the career of the man who traded him, not the man who replaced him.

In 1999, after months of research and preparation, Reid took McNabb with the second pick of the NFL draft. It was a monumental decision, a bet of millions of dollars and Reid's credibility on a then 22-year-old from Syracuse University. 

Overstatement? Well, Chris Palmer was coach of the Cleveland Browns, who took Tim Couch No. 1 in that draft. The Browns are on their third head coach since Palmer was fired after two seasons. The Cincinnati Bengals took Akili Smith one pick after McNabb. Kudos if you remember that their head coach at the time was Bruce Coslet.

These things don't happen in a vacuum, of course. There is a symbiotic relationship between the head coach and the franchise quarterback. Maybe Couch or Smith would have thrived under Reid. Maybe McNabb would have made a Hall of Fame coach out of Palmer or Coslet. We'll never know.

What we do know is that it is very, very difficult for a coach to recover after making a huge investment in a quarterback who doesn't quite pan out.

Ask Dom Capers, coach when the Houston Texans took David Carr No. 1 overall in 2002. Or ask Marty Mornhinweg, whose Detroit Lions took Joey Harrington with the third pick that year.

Or ask Dan Reeves. He was the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons when they had the No. 1 overall pick in the 2001 draft. The Falcons took an athletic QB from Virginia Tech named Michael Vick.

Now Vick clearly doesn't fit into the category of a total bust. He was and is an enormously and uniquely talented football player. But there is another aspect to being a franchise quarterback, to being the most important player for a billion-dollar business.

And that is where Vick came up short. After Reeves was let go in 2003, Jim Mora became the Falcons' head coach. In 2004, with Greg Knapp as the offensive coordinator, Vick led Atlanta to an 11-5 record and the NFC championship game. Falcons owner Arthur Blank rewarded Vick with a 10-year, $130-million contract, the kind of megadeal reserved for elite quarterbacks like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and, yes, McNabb.

These deals are more like corporate mergers than player contracts. They come with an added level of responsibility and accountability. The ignorant jackals who criticized McNabb for being a "company man" (or harsher terms) simply failed to grasp this part of the bargain.

Of course, so did Vick. This predates the federal dogfighting charges. By Vick's own account, he didn't work hard enough at his game. He wasn't in the film room or the weight room enough. He was involved in a string of incidents that embarrassed the team and himself, notably the time he flipped both middle fingers at Atlanta fans as he ran off the field.

Ron Mexico was no one's idea of a franchise QB. It is no coincidence that Mora joined Reeves on the ex-coaches list just two years after reaching the conference championship game.

So here we are in 2010. Vick is in the second and final year of his contract with the Eagles. He has supplanted the carefully groomed Kevin Kolb as the Eagles' No. 1 quarterback. If he is truly as good as he's played the last couple of weeks against lesser defenses, the Eagles would be fools to allow him to reach free agency. All of this is complicated by the lack of an NFL labor agreement and the possibility of a lockout next season, but the bottom line is that no team could reasonably part with a QB who played that well.

The Eagles took a public-relations risk by signing Vick to this contract. They will be taking an enormous financial risk when they sign him to his next deal. They will be gambling that the change in Vick is deep and permanent – not merely a temporary sales pitch for that new contract. 

The ultimate irony: Reid's job depends on Vick the Eagle being like McNabb, on and off the field, rather than Vick the Falcon. That would put him in good company, man.