Monday December 10th, 2007

As we have been virtually from Day 1 of the long Michael Vick saga, we're once again in uncharted territory. The length of Vick's prison sentence has finally been determined, but it's still hard to know how much time, if any, will be left in his NFL playing career when he's done paying for his involvement in that sordid dog-fighting ring.

All we can do is the same math that Vick's doing today. And the numbers are harsh, harsher than many expected. Sentenced to 23 months in prison, Vick has to start with the worst-case scenario that he'll miss three full seasons in the middle of his career -- 2007, 2008 and 2009 -- before trying to return to the field at age 30 in 2010.

An early parole for good behavior might shorten his time away from the game to a best-case scenario of two years, but even then there are variables we still can't know. Will the NFL add a suspension to the mix, thereby lengthening his absence from the field? Will the state of Virginia continue with its charges against Vick and his fellow dog-fighters, perhaps increasing his time behind bars?

And how many teams will even consider signing Vick in three years, when the layer of rust on his skills has reached an almost unprecedented level? As I wrote in August, opinions around the NFL are pessimistic about whether Vick will ever again be the world-class athlete he was prior to 2007. And Monday's news, and how it furthered the timeline of Vick's return to the league, only seemed to decrease his likelihood of ever again starring on the NFL stage.

"If Michael Vick can come back after three years away from the game and play at the level we saw him play a year ago, rushing for 1,000 yards, it'd be almost unfair and you'd have to think that God has mistreated a lot of us,'' Vikings receivers coach and former Falcons assistant George Stewart told me Monday afternoon.

"If Michael Vick has the ability to do that, and I'm not trying to put him in the class of Muhammad Ali, but that's the only name that comes to mind when you try and think of a guy who was away from it for quite a while and then returned to compete a high level.''

Stewart was the Falcons' receivers coach from 2003-'06, spending four full years with Vick. He knows him well, likes him, and is hoping for the best whenever Vick's comeback is finally launched. But his expectations are not high.

"To be a quarterback and lay off for three years, with everything you have to put into it, that's asking a lot,'' Stewart said. "If there's a person who could get it done, it'd be him. Michael Vick may have a flash or two, he'll have moments where he competes at a high level, but it will never be the same Michael Vick. If he does, the rest of us will have been cheated by God.''

It's somehow fitting that Vick's sentencing came just hours before the Falcons host their division rival New Orleans Saints at the Georgia Dome on Monday Night Football. Atlanta, its season in tatters almost since the day the Vick story broke, will be starting Chris Redman at quarterback, its third different replacement for Vick this season.

This much is clearer than ever in Atlanta: The Falcons won't be the team that welcomes Vick back into the NFL in 2010. Team owner Arthur Blank issued a statement just after Vick's sentence was announced, and it read in part like a farewell.

"This is a difficult day for Michael's family and for a lot of us, including many of our players and fans who have been emotionally invested in Michael over the years,'' Blank's statement said. "We sincerely hope that Michael will use this time to continue to focus his efforts on making positive changes in his life, and we wish him well in that regard.''

I couldn't help but notice that Blank didn't entertain any thought of a possible return to the NFL by Vick should his efforts to change his life succeed, and that he used the past tense when speaking of the emotional investment that so many in Atlanta had for No. 7.

If Vick ever makes it back to the NFL, it will not be in the form we saw him in his first six seasons in the league, as a celebrated franchise quarterback with the rarest of athletic skills. People within the league I talked to on Monday were at a loss to project what Vick might have left as a player once he's 30 and coming off three years out of the game.

"The key word is unprecedented,'' said one veteran NFL general manager. "I don't know of anyone who's been away from the game that long a time and then come back to prominence. He's got a unique skill set. But will he still have it if he sits out that long? Can he get back the place where he was a year ago? I just don't know. I don't know anyone who can project where he'll be mentally or physically at that point.

"I don't think there's anyone that's going to just turn the keys of their team over to him in three years time. I don't see that. But there's just no reference point for someone who sat out that length of time and came back and played any position, let alone quarterback.''

I do get the growing sense within the league that if Vick does his time honorably and shows real changes in his life, some sort of on-field opportunity will await him when he regains his freedom. After all, it will only take one team to give him that coveted second chance.

"We have a great capacity to forgive once punishment has been served,'' said the veteran general manager. "I believe they'll be a number of teams interested to see what he still has. They'll be people who want to see if he still has that magic ability. But it's such new ground to try and project his future.

"I certainly wouldn't want to say he can or can't make it back. My gut is I kind of hope he does. It has been a tremendous amount of punishment he's taken for this. It's kind of sad. He basically has lost almost everything. I hope he does have a comeback waiting out there some day.''

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