The heavy hitters from out of town began arriving in Philadelphia early last week. They filled the cozy media room at the NovaCare Center to overflowing, and the lines leading to their satellite trucks snaked from the news-conference auditorium in thick, unending coils.

You can't blame them. This is quite a story that will tell another of its chapters this Sunday afternoon in Lincoln Financial Field. If the names involved were more difficult to pronounce, it could be a Russian novel.

There is both crime and punishment, to be sure, and betrayal and redemption and intrigue. There is the quarterback whose success was not enough and who was banished. There is the young heir to the throne unseated just after his coronation. And there is the fallen hero who returns to rebuild his reputation, if he is, in fact, sincere.

The heavy hitters arrived, and they wanted to talk about Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick and - well, not so much - about Kevin Kolb. When Wednesday came around - the big weekly probing of Andy Reid's deepest thoughts and feelings - the seats in the auditorium were filled, there beneath the glowering mural of Chuck Bednarik.

He never looks particularly happy, but Concrete Charlie didn't seem to approve of the mob, and Reid, who views news conferences as either a fine opportunity to say nothing or to be misleading, wasn't in the mood for drama, either. Early on, when someone asked whether he would prefer that McNabb receive a warm reception from the fans, Reid had to let the room down easy.

"Some people have traveled here a long ways, I know," Reid said. "It's a pretty simple thing. We've got to get ready for the Washington Redskins. I think if you get caught up in all of these little things we're asking here, that's taking away from actually knowing that football team, and that would be the wrong thing to do."

How answering the question would have interfered with Reid's preparation is difficult to determine, but the coach methodically went about tamping down the raging bonfire for which he had provided the kindling, logs, and matches. Of all the surprises this season, Reid not saying much is the least of them.

In a very real way, he's right. McNabb isn't playing Vick today. They will never be on the field at the same time, although their statistics will be measured side by side when the day is over. Regardless of the outcome, it is still just the fourth week of the regular season and the referendum on trading-McNabb-benching-Kolb-trusting-Vick will not be completed for quite a while.

At the moment, Reid looks pretty smart. McNabb is playing all right, but the Redskins aren't very good, and Vick's play is flattening the tires of the Kolb bandwagon. But Reid is also smart enough to know that many precincts have not yet reported.

"It's too early right now to tell," Reid said of Vick's assimilation to the offense. "His body of work is two-and-a-half games. Time will tell, and then we'll be able to answer that question."

He didn't add that two of the games were against egregiously bad teams and the half-game was against a decent team content to protect a big lead. The test isn't whether Vick can throw a football or create options with his mobility. That part is obvious. The test will be what happens when he is defended by a team that knows what it is doing.

That could happen against Washington. But the Redskins have managed to give up 30 points in each of their last two games and Vick's history against defensive coordinator Jim Haslett's teams is impressive. While in Atlanta, Vick played five times against the Saints when they were coached by Haslett. The Falcons were 5-0 in those games and averaged 31 points. Vick threw for seven touchdowns and ran for another six.

"Jim Haslett is a proven defensive coordinator in the National Football League," Reid said, shooting another flaming arrow into the bulletin board. "He's got a phenomenal mind for defense."

It hasn't wrapped itself around stopping Michael Vick yet, but nevertheless Haslett will get another chance Sunday. The Redskins have been hinting they will use a defensive back to "spy" Vick during the game, and that might be true or it might be a misdirection. Other teams are allowed to lie, too.

What the Redskins probably won't do is adopt the template used by Detroit and Jacksonville and bring constant blitzes. Even in the smoldering ruins of his strategy last week, Jack Del Rio - another phenomenal mind - defended his decision a lot better than his team defended Vick.

"Certainly, we took an aggressive posture. . . . I would do it again," Del Rio said. "I think it's the way to attack Vick. I think it's been proven. . . . If you make him a quarterback that has to operate outside the pocket, that gives you the best chance, in my opinion."

Well, given Vick's ability to create on the move, that sounds stone stupid - and it looked that way, too. For a better model, recall what Jim Johnson did when his defenses matched up against Vick. He used a "mush rush" to contain the quarterback and concentrated on disguising the coverages. Maybe it wasn't genius, but his record (3-1) against Vick was solid. (Del Rio's defenses are now 0-4, by the way, allowing 30 points per game.)

Eventually, Vick will see something different from what he has seen so far and then the real game of change and adaptation will have begun. When that happens, it won't matter if Donovan McNabb is watching from the other sideline. It will matter that the other defensive geniuses in the NFL are watching.

So, it's a long way from here to the final chapter for the Vicknikovs and the McNabboviches. There will be many plot twists before we arrive at the end. This game adds an interesting bit of drama, though, even if the creator of the drama doesn't want to talk about it.