A few days before Michael Vick's return as a starting quarterback in the NFL, he asked another athlete for an autograph for the first time in his life.

Four years ago, and for many reasons, such a thing would never have occurred. But that was then, when Vick was arguably the most electric player in the league, earning millions and starring in TV commercials.

On this day - as the Eagles' backup quarterback who will finally getting a shot against Detroit Sunday because starter Kevin Kolb is recovering from a concussion - he was just a dad fetching a memento for his 5-year-old daughter from her favorite player, wide receiver DeSean Jackson. When Vick, now 30, was on the cover of the Madden video game in 2004, Jackson was in high school.

The moment reflected how life has changed for Vick, about whom huge questions still swirl. Mainly, has Vick himself really changed and can he control his instinct to freelance - sometimes to the detriment of his team - and operate within an offensive system?

When Vick was a celebrity-athlete with the Atlanta Falcons for the first phase of his career, he never had a receiver as electrifying as Jackson. Vick's speed made him electrifying himself, but he was the quarterback, and quarterbacks were supposed to make plays with their arms, not their legs.

It was an internal battle Vick would wage with himself each week.

As a run-first quarterback, Vick's exploits were as often criticized as self-indulgence as much as they were admired for their athletic artistry.

Then, of course, came the indictment for dogfighting and gambling; the public outrage; and a federal prison sentence.

"This was once the highest-paid player in the league," said Ike Reese, the former Eagles linebacker who was once a teammate of Vick's in Atlanta. "And he lost his sense of entitlement. He's been humbled and he's savoring being back in the NFL."

After his release from prison, with former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy as his ambassador, Vick looked forward to joining the Eagles mostly because they offered a chance to rehabilitate his playing style as he was trying to convince the world he had been rehabilitated in more meaningful ways.

Vick noted the success that Eagles coach Andy Reid and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg had in developing passing quarterbacks.

"We throw the ball more," Vick said. "So, here you have no choice but to get better in the passing game. It's like a passing camp during the summer."

Reid has praised Vick for mending his life as he has worked on his game.

"This is about Michael and him putting his heart and soul into getting things right in his life, and that's what he's done on and off the field," Reid said. "He worked really hard at that. He wanted to get things right and it can't happen without him saving his mind and doing what he's done."

Back into football shape

While Vick's football comeback started when he was signed by the Eagles in August 2009, it began in earnest during the recent off-season as he worked himself back into football shape.

It kicked into high gear, however, when Vick replaced an injured Kolb last week and nearly rallied the Eagles past the Green Bay Packers in a 27-20 loss. He passed for 175 yards and a touchdown and ran for 103 yards playing the entire second half and a handful of plays in the first two quarters.

After last week's performance, there was an instance when the old, overconfident Vick resurfaced. If given four quarters, he said, "maybe we would have had a chance to win the game."

But other than that, Vick continues to say all the right things.

"It would be gratifying," Vick said Friday of leading the Eagles to a win over the Lions. "This team took a chance on me when not many others would."

He has pointed out that with the Eagles he doesn't have to be the one-man offense he was in Atlanta.

"I'm always going to be a confident quarterback," Vick said Friday. "I just have so many weapons around me and so much talent that you don't have to do it by yourself. At some point in Atlanta, I felt like I had to do it all, and really, I didn't. But that's just a growing process . . . that's part of maturing."

Still, there are times that nag at the sensibilities of Vick-watchers.

He almost fumbled this chance with the Eagles last summer, when one of the codefendants in his dogfighting case was shot in the leg outside a Virginia Beach nightclub that was hosting Vick's birthday party. No one was charged, and investigators, the Eagles, and the NFL eventually decided that Vick was guilty of nothing more than poor judgment.

Even before Vick's legal problems with dogfighting, his star was fading in Atlanta.

"In 2005, the Falcons wanted him to play as a pocket passer and he resisted it," said Reese, now a sports talk radio host at WIP-AM (610). "He felt like his game suffered and that they were putting restrictions on him."

After a Dolphins win in which Vick threw for 228 yards, the quarterback barked at reporters, "From here on out, I don't want to hear that question - if I can throw from the pocket."

Vick ran less in '05, but his passing numbers remained relatively the same and the Falcons finished 8-8 a year after they had reached the NFC championship game.

That off-season Vick claimed, "I got to be me," and in 2006 he went back to his freewheeling ways, rushing for more than 1,000 yards.

"But all it did was result in a 7-9 season, the coach getting fired, and a regime change," Reese said.

Then came the dogfighting-ring scandal and prison.

To help Vick make the transition to the type of quarterback they prefer, Reid and Mornhinweg worked on adjusting his throwing style so that he didn't stand too high when he set up to pass. And they drilled into him that it was fine to move about and outside the pocket, as long as he kept his eyes downfield and went through his reads.

Much of the work rested on Vick's shoulders. He had to alter his longtime habits as well as accept a lesser role. His dedication has been appreciated by many of his younger teammates, who had grown up wearing his Nike brand shoes and playing him in Madden football.

"He was a huge, maybe the biggest star in this league at one point," Eagles tight end Brent Celek said. "He never griped about anything. It says a lot about him as a person. And now he's got his chance."

Dungy, who has mentored Vick and championed his cause during his comeback, said there has been a major change in the player and the person.

"I think we saw the true Michael Vick," Dungy said of the game against the Packers. "Last year, I don't think he was ready physically to do that. He probably wasn't ready in terms of knowing their offense and all the work that had to be put in. Now he's at that point where I think he felt any time this year if they put him in he could go out and play winning football."

As unfair as it is to judge Kolb on his dreadful first half against Green Bay, it is equally unreasonable to reach a conclusion about Vick based on that game. He'll have Detroit and possibly Jacksonville the following week to further his cause of becoming a full-time starter again.

"Michael is excited to step in and play," Reid said. "As we all know, he was one of the great quarterbacks in the league before he was incarcerated."

Reid has emphasized that Kolb is the No. 1 quarterback, and it would appear unlikely that he would change his mind considering the investment the Eagles have made in the 26-year-old. But Vick could have something to say about that, or at the very least, help himself for next season.

'A great desire'

"He's got a great desire to do that, and that's all part of him resurrecting his career," Reid said. "He's a competitive, competitive guy. There's nothing more that he would like to do than start."

Vick took the week of extra attention in stride - the swarm of reporters around his locker, the requests from national media outlets, and the additional phone calls from family and friends. He has been here before, after all.

"But I got a long way to go," Vick said.

If he's going to make his second act a successful one, Vick will have to remain as receptive and appreciative as he's been since his release from prison, when he accepted the help of Dungy, Reid, and Mornhinweg and a hotshot receiver willing to sign an autograph for his daughter.

"I'm interested to see what Michael Vick we're going to get Sunday," Reese said. "Will it be the old, overconfident Michael Vick that says, 'I can win this myself'? Or do we get the new Vick that trusts his coaches, the system, and his teammates?

"It's going to be interesting."

Contact staff writer Jeff McLane at 215-854-4745 or jmclane@phillynews.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Jeff_McLane.