Assuming that Vick misses two years through a combination of incarceration and a suspension from the NFL (a reasonable assumption at this stage), he is going to be an interesting test case for the proposition that America will forgive anyone who appears contrite. There's no doubt in my mind that Vick will offer a tearful apology. Whether the apology is perceived as sincere or as an attempt to pave the way for a return to the NFL is another matter entirely. Once he makes that apology and serves his time, the normal course of action would be for the general public to forgive and let him get back to earning a living. Memories tend to be short and the freshness of the allegations in the indictment against Vick will fade.
That said, Vick is accused of a unqiue crime that will really test the tendency to forgive. There is a reason why "puppy-killer" is a euphemism for the worst sort of crime that a person can commit. There is a reason why men cry during Bambi, but not in any one of a bevy of movies where humans (including totally innocent humans), are killed. People will forgive a lot, but cruelty to animals is one of the deadliest of sins. The fact that Vick will be pleading guilty to hanging, drowning, and beating dogs that didn't meet his standards for fighting will be hard to forgive. The fact that he bought the Moonlight Road property shortly after being drafted, which implies that having a dog-fighting operation was a dream for him in the same way that I dream of taking an RV from coast to coast if I won the lottery, is even worse. This might be the first instance of an athlete apologizing to absolutely no effect.
I've said this before, but Vick's ultimate surrender to the charges against him is a good thing for the Falcons, at least in terms of the long term prospect of fielding a legitimate Super Bowl contender. After four seasons as a starter and six seasons as an NFL quarterback, Vick had showed us where he was and probably what his peak level would be. He had a terrific arm and unbelievable running ability, but his ability to read a defense and throw accurately and with touch to his receivers was not great and had not improved in several years. He was a slightly above-average quarterback being paid to be Manning or Brady. He left us no reason to think that he would progress beyond that level, as he did not show significant improvement and his work ethic was questionable.
Thus, the Falcons were in a bind. They could not build a great team around Vick because of his huge salary cap number. Vick was good enough to keep the team at the 6-8 win level, thus ensuring that they would not bottom out and get to rebuild immediately through the Draft. He was not good enough to get the team beyond that level. Additionally, because he was so popular with the fan base and because the Falcons' fan base isn't equal to the fan bases in other cities as a result of the devotion to college football in the area, Vick could not be dealt. Thus, the Falcons were stuck with almost no prospect of moving from average to very good until Vick had a major injury or did something off the field that would end his tenure in Atlanta.
Now, the Falcons are out of that bind. They will likely bottom out this year (unless Joey Harrington is better than we think), they'll take a quarterback at the top of the Draft next year, and they'll be able to build a more promising team. Call me crazy, but a team with a nucleus of Brohm/Norwood/Anderson/Hall/Houston is fairly appealing to me. If Petrino's system works in the NFL and Rich McKay hits on his draft picks (and I like what he did last year), then this team could be very good in three years. (After evaluating Brohm's stats for my college football fantasy league, it occurs to me that Petrino's system, which puts a premium of short, accurate passes, would not have been a good fit for Vick. It would have been a great fit for Matt Schaub. Harumph.) Additionally, losing Vick will make McKay a better drafter because instead of worrying about surrounding Vick with the right pieces (and thus reaching for questionable receivers), he can simply focus on building a complete team.
Len Pasquarelli makes a valid point about the fact that winning won't necessarily lead to butts in the seats:
It could well be that Atlanta finds it easier to win games, after absorbing the initial shock of having to play without Vick, than to win back the allegiance of a city in which many patrons now feel betrayed.
Only a few weeks ago, the Falcons announced that they were making available a few more season-ticket packages, this after everyone had been led to believe the Georgia Dome was sold out for the 2007 campaign. Whispers are that the tickets were returned by fans distraught at the accusations against Vick (and the possibility that those charges might be merited). At least one group of Falcons' ticket holders has already met to discuss the potential for a class-action suit against the Falcons because they feel Vick's absence has devalued their investment. And unless the Falcons sever ties to Vick before the club's first regular-season home game, on Sept. 23 against rival Carolina, there almost certainly will be picketers at the Georgia Dome.
From a business and socioeconomic standpoint, there is also the issue of the demographics of Atlanta, a town in which the majority population in the city proper is African-American. That the Falcons have played to full houses for much of Blank's tenure isn't attributable mainly to the fact he sold tickets in the upper reaches of the Georgia Dome for $10 a game, it's because of the presence of Vick, who has been embraced by the black community.
Vick was the perfect player for this city: an exciting, African-American player at a traditionally white position who put the Falcons on the map. The African-American fan base is critical for the Falcons because it tends to be a little less enamored with the local college football teams and thus represents the core fan base for the local NFL product. It is going to be hard to maintain that fan base, even if the team does win, because there's something less appealing about a conventional NFL team (white QB and coach) as opposed to what the Falcons represented with Vick. There will also likely be feelings that the Falcons did not do enough to defend Vick, even though it's painfully obvious (at least to me) that there was no defending him once the indictment was made public.
The Vick experience also illustrates the danger of marketing a player as the embodiment of a team. That concept is usually far more prevalent in the NBA, but the Falcons became associated with Vick more than just about any team in the league is associated with a particular player. (The Colts and Manning are the only team that comes close.) The PR blowback from Vick's Untergang is going to be harsher for the Falcons than it would be for just about any other NFL team. This is the problem with the NBA model of marketing.
The NFL is far too strong for an episode like Vickkampf to derail its surging popularity. That said, the Vick experience will almost certainly impact the way that owners and GMs view their players, although there are a couple different directions that the reaction could take. Jonathan Cohn argues that the Falcons acted as an enabler for Vick, thus confirming for him the lessons he likely learned in high school and college that he was above the law. In the end, he skated on a series of petty offenses and thus got nailed on a really big one.
One reaction that management might have is that such enabling needs to stop. Intense background checks might become the norm before teams spend high draft picks or make serious contractual commitments to players. (This ought to be an even bigger imperative in baseball and the NBA, where contracts are guaranteed.) Management will decide that it needs to become more distant towards and skeptical of its players. On the other hand, different teams might decide that the need for handlers for their players is even greater. A rational owner could read Cohn's article and conclude that the Falcons' mistake was that Billy "White Shoes" Johnson wasn't around him enough. If only the Falcons would have been even more paternal towards Vick, then they could have stopped him from pissing away his best years in a federal pen.
And one final note
I chose the "Vickkampf" title to this series of posts not to compare Vick to Hitler or the Nazis, but rather because I like using German phrases. That said, I was struck by the irony today that if I were tasked with the idiotic task of distinguishing Vick from Hitler, I'd start with the fact that Hitler was a vegetarian who loved animals in general and his Alsatian Blondie in particular. So there.