THE FIRST HINT had come early at training camp, although Andy Reid camouflaged it in enough careful wording to throw everyone off the track. The topic at Lehigh that day was Michael Vick, and whether he should be signed by another team after doing his jail time. Reid said that he knew Vick a little, that he liked him. He said more than once along the way that the Eagles were happy with their quarterback situation, but that he thought Vick deserved another shot.
He said, "At this phase in my life, I'm big on second chances.''
It was a reference to the legal issues of his two sons, Garrett and Britt - the drugs, the incarcerations, all well-publicized, all personally wrenching for Reid and his family. It was Reid offering a rare window into his heart. He is a man who does not often do that, who does not tell many personal stories, who does not open himself up to that kind of public introspection.
But it was the first hint, magnified now by hindsight, that Michael Vick was on the coach's radar.
On the night when the Eagles announced that they had signed Vick to a 1-year contract with a club option for a second year - the same Michael Vick who did 18 months in prison for his involvement in a dogfighting operation - Reid opened his heart again. It was a stunning news conference, so unReidlike - even if he did start with injuries.
In it, the coach acknowledged that Vick has been on his mind for months and years. He said that Vick got into trouble at about the same time his sons got into trouble, and that he followed Vick's story from afar and compared it to what his sons were enduring. It was as open and as human as Reid has ever been at an interview podium, and it was clear that not only was this Reid's decision, first and foremost - but that his personal life opened him to the possibilities.
At one point last night, he was asked whether he might not have been so open if he had not seen his sons, and the mistakes they made, and what they went through. He said: "I don't know that. I would hope that I would be, just like I hope the fans would be.''
A minute later, he added, "I've kind of lived that process. I've seen change.''
The first reaction was not positive or negative, not really. The first reaction was stunned. There is no other way to describe the feeling when ESPN.com initially reported last night that the Eagles had signed Vick.
Part of it is because the Eagles preach relentlessly about character players, and Vick just spent time in prison for his involvement in a dogfighting scheme, a truly heinous crime. It just doesn't seem like an Eagles kind of move, but here we are. Again: stunned. And now we all get to try to figure it out.
The thought all along has been this: that Vick would be signed by a really good team or a really desperate team. The Eagles are the former. And make no mistake: They have just turned the National Football League on its head. They have just committed the biggest news of the 2009 season before a pass has been thrown in earnest.
The football world will now ask two questions: How will they be able to withstand the public reaction, and how will anybody be able to deal with the offense that the Eagles might end up concocting?
They will wonder about the answer to the first question. They will fear the second.
Vick committed a terrible, repugnant crime involving a dogfighting ring that he bankrolled. After his time in jail, he spent time in home confinement. There is a chance the NFL will not reinstate him until the sixth week of the season (although it could be earlier). But there is no legal reason he should not be able to play again. Second chances are an American tradition, some say an American obsession. Vick deserves his as much as anyone.
Second comes the football part of the equation and this truth: The player can assist the Eagles. Not lead - assist.
Vick was an enormous talent, when last we saw him. He was not a superior quarterback, though. He could run, but there were questions about whether he could ever be a traditional passing quarterback at the level needed to win a championship. But when viewed as a supplementary piece, as a team's appendage rather than its spine, the possibilities grow. It is a sport, after all, in which games routinely turn on a small handful of plays.
And Reid said: "I think he helps us as a football player. But I'm bringing him in to the team. I'm not bringing him in for Andy.''
This franchise - Jeffrey Lurie, Joe Banner, Reid, all of them - does not routinely act on emotion. It weighs pros and cons. It makes lists of positives and negatives. It balances them all on scales. And while all of that happened here, there was more to it than lines on a yellow legal pad.
This is different. This is Reid's move. And while this is about football, true enough, he is leading here with his heart.
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