Hang around Falcons fans long enough, and the question will arise. It will arise like a fart, but it will arise:
"Do you guys wish the Falcons had brought Michael Vick back?"
It's impossible to thoroughly answer without digging into a hundred years of slurred and glossed-over Southern race and class politics, SEC country's often-archaic concept of what football is supposed to look like, and a million conflicting ideas on celebrity, money, team loyalty, civic responsibility, and property law.
This summer, The Falcoholic ranked him as the third most disgraceful Falcon of all time, ahead of only Jim Mora and Bobby Petrino (wow, they really hate Jim Mora). Michael Vick did terrible things and has finally started making the most of his second chance; I think everybody could agree on that at the least.
But we can handle the question as it pertains to the Atlanta Falcons roster.
In 2007, many fans would've thought about taking him back after seeing Bobby Petrino's pitching rotation of Joey Harrington and Byron Leftwich collapse. He had a dead-to-us stink, though, so it was the very rare, but embarrassingly vocal, fan who actually argued the team should save him a roster spot while he did time in a freaking federal pen. Chris Redman played well after Petrino left, and most fans wanted to see the team draft Glenn Dorsey instead of Matt Ryan.
Ryan's first pass as a pro, a 62-yard touchdown, pushed Vick out of the back of my mind. We'd struck gold. It took an extremely expensive rug to hide the massive bull elephant turd stain on Arthur Blank's carpet*, but that's fine. You do what you gotta do. I can't say all Falcons fans felt the same way about Ryan, but any arguments in favor of bringing Vick back were not being made by football fans for football reasons.
* My second and last reference of this kind.
When the Eagles signed Vick last year, I cut my errands short just to make it home to buy tickets to their Atlanta game before prices soared. Falcons-Eagles has been a budding minor rivalry for a while, and the two teams were both playoff contenders, but I knew Vick's return would elevate hostilities to a WWE circus of a spectacle.
It was pretty hard to sit through. But I, as a Falcons fan, have one idea of what fandom means, and Vick's many fans who live in Atlanta have theirs. That's fine. Still, at no point did I consider what this team would look like if Vick had never gone to prison -- until last weekend.
Watching Vick last Sunday with a room full of Falcons fans, it was hard not to be swayed all over again. Bittersweet would be one word. He looked as invincible as you've forgotten, but more efficient and careful than ever. He had his best game since his third-to-last start as a Falcon.
He's a few years older, and he's finally in an offense that works for him, so it shouldn't be a surprise. This is all based on 30 minutes of football for which the Packers likely hadn't prepared all that much, but still. He did more to win in 30 minutes than Ryan has done in all but a handful of his own starts. And we can save the "But Ryan is young, the Steelers are good, etc.," stuff. I'm not trashing Ryan by saying Vick outplayed him. Ryan will be a top-ten quarterback very soon. But his best is not yet as good as Vick's. (Luckily, Ryan's worst doesn't involve federal outhouse investigation.)
This is what we missed out on when he played in Atlanta. We got the rough draft Vick, which was still better than anything else we've ever had.
He was on his way to becoming the best offensive player in franchise history; I will absolutely put the first five starting seasons of Vick's career up against Steve Bartkowski's. For all that he screwed up off the field (here's a double-digit bullet list rundown, along with 100-plus comments from disdainful or conflicted Falcons fans), he still led the team to the playoffs twice and the NFC Championship once. No other Falcons player can claim that. And ordinarily you'd like to avoid the simplistic trope of saying a quarterback "led" his team, but in this case it's the only fitting word.
For all the hee-cain't-read-a-dee-fense catechisms repeated by resistant Falcons fans, Vick was the most decisive force for victory the team has ever had. Yards are yards, and wins are wins, and he collected plenty of both. During his time on the roster, the Falcons posted a 59.5 percent winning percentage with Vick starting and only 29.5 in 44 games without him. If you can name a handful of other NFL players who literally doubled their teams' chances of winning, with a sample size similar to or greater than Vick's, I'd like to hear it.
Since there aren't very many, how about NBA players? Michael Jordan, maybe? The Bulls only slipped by two games after his first retirement. After his second retirement they also lost Dennis Rodman, Scottie Pippen, and Steve Kerr, so that 49-win plunge can't be pinned on one player alone. So nope, not Michael Jordan. But anyway.
I believe in Matt Ryan. But in the mind of this sports fan, which is as fragile and emotional as yours when it comes to the team, it comes down to this: could Ryan, on his best day, lead the Falcons to a road playoff victory over any team in the league? Probably. What about Vick? Absolutely. (WOULDN'T IT SERVE ME RIGHT IF VICK LOST TO THE LIONS THIS SUNDAY?) But that's the difference at this moment. It's not about who will be better in 2015 or who I'd feel more comfortable living next door to.
Do I wish Michael Vick had come back to Atlanta?
No. Not as a football fan nor as an Atlantan nor human nor father do I wish the team had welcomed him back after his crimes, lies, and scandals. But sometimes I still wish he'd never forced himself out in the first place.
And God I hope we beat Philly this year.