WHEN YOU SIGN someone who had been convicted of operating a brutal dogfighting ring, who had just served 18 months behind bars and had been suspended indefinitely by the NFL, it would seem fair to say that you have a steep public-relations hill to climb. But that was what faced the Eagles when they took a flier on quarterback Michael Vick in August 2009 in a move that had Eagles fans howling: "They signed WHO?"
Bringing in Vick seemed to defy logic. The Eagles had a quarterback - Donovan McNabb. And they had a quarterback they were grooming to replace him - Kevin Kolb. Exactly how head coach Andy Reid would use Vick was not immediately clear, if he had larger plans for him than occasionally employing him in the Wildcat offense to utilize his superior running ability. In the uncertainty that then prevailed, the upside of having Vick on board did not seem to be worth the potential downside.
But it was the fans who were even more perplexed by the acquisition of Vick. Even fans who seemed to believe in the concept of redemption were uncertain what they would do if, by some chance, Vick emerged as the starting quarterback: Could they cheer for him? Given the appalling offenses that Vick had committed against innocent animals, fans suddenly found themselves torn between their allegiance to the team and their utter disdain for what Vick had done. While Vick had stood before a court of law and received his punishment, he now stood before the court of public opinion, which can be even harder to win over than any judge or jury.
And yet that appears to be just what Vick has done. In a season that has seen him emerge from a backup to the untried Kevin Kolb to an MVP candidate, Vick has undergone a transformation in the public eye that few believed was possible in the summer of 2009. Upon being appointed the starting quarterback by Reid in September, Vick led the 10-4 Eagles to the NFC East title with some eye-popping individual play.
Moreover, he has become what Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie had hoped he would become: an agent for change in the community by speaking out against the behavior that led to his involvement in dogfighting. And the fans who once looked upon his presence with a scorn are now beginning to warm toward him.
How warm? This warm:
A survey conducted by the Daily News in conjunction with the Sports Industry Research Center at Temple University indicated that 60 percent of all respondents said they had a more positive view of Michael Vick when asked if his performance on and off the field had changed their opinion of him. Sixteen percent said that the positive feelings they had toward him remained unchanged. Thus, 76 percent had favorable feelings toward Vick. Of the 24 percent who had a negative opinion of Vick, 23 percent said their feelings remained unchanged, and 1 percent said they were more negative.
Additionally, fans who said that the Eagles were their favorite team had a very high satisfaction level in how Vick has performed: 54 percent said they were "very satisfied" in him and another 31 percent said they were "satisfied." Only 1 percent said they were "dissatisfied," and less than 1 percent said they were "very dissatisfied." Thirteen percent said they were "neutral."
And who did they think will quarterback the Eagles next year?
Fans who called the Eagles their favorite team said Vick, by a whopping 78 percent. Seven percent said Kolb. Eleven percent said someone else. And 4 percent said they were not sure.
What accounts for the change in attitude?
Does it just come down to winning?
Or have fans separated their feelings for "Michael Vick the Quarterback" from "Michael Vick the Man?"
Or have fans accepted that Vick has been indeed sincere in the remorse he has exhibited for his actions and his desire to do better? Recently, Vick said: "I hope to leave a legacy that kids can look back on and say, 'OK, here's a guy who rose to the top, fell dramatically and rose again. Despite everything he went through, he had the ability to keep pressing forward, stay persistent and made the most out of a bad situation that he created, that all was self-inflicted.'
"The only thing I hope is that people give me the opportunity when they look back to say: 'Here is a guy who made a mistake and he bounced back from it, even though a lot of people don't agree with him.' I just hope they would give me the benefit of the doubt at the end of the day. God gave me a second chance, so I think everybody else should."
So how do the fans explain the change in opinion that has occurred?
Adam Dvorin, of Philadelphia, said this: "I was an outspoken anti-Vick critic when he was first signed. But he has slowly earned my respect. He has proven to be sincere about taking advantage of his second chance. He has made the most of his opportunity on the field, where he has been brilliant, but also off the field . . . He is working very hard to focus on football. Additionally, it appears that his teammates all regard him highly, so he must be a good guy in the locker room as well."
Dante Purifico, of Philadelphia, echoed that. "My opinion of Michael has definitely changed since we first acquired him," said Purifico. "I feel that everyone in life deserves a second chance if they have done wrong. I feel that Michael has learned his lesson and not only has he changed as a person but it has made him realize that his real talent is on the football field. The way he is playing this year is a big thank you to the Eagles organization for giving him the opportunity to let his talents show. He is an MVP candidate this year."
Barry Mortzfield, of Downingtown, said Vick has "made a sincere effort to redeem himself off the field." Mortzfield added, "I also think that may influence his on-the-field performance, [and] that he realizes his teammates have supported him, and he does not want to let them down. I get the distinct impression that Vick seems to be a better team player here in Philadelphia than he was in Atlanta."
Alan Greenbaum, of Wynnewood, called Vick "the feel-good story of the year." Greenbaum said, "I believe that his apparent remorse for his previous actions is sincere . . . Vick has paid for his misdeeds. It is wonderful to see someone take advantage of that second chance."
Christina Stetler, of Manchester, also has had a change of heart. While she conceded that she was "not thrilled" when the Eagles signed Vick, and looked upon his action as "abhorrent," she said he does appear to have gone "out of his way to do more than necessary" to atone for his crimes. Stetler also said that she has "seen a difference in his attitude on the field," that Vick is not as "cocky" as he once appeared and that has become more of a team leader.
"Personally," Stetler said, "[I think] time will tell with Michael Vick. But for now, it seems as if he has finally realized what he did and how wrong it was."
Barkley Sample, of Philadelphia, said he is able to separate "Mike Vick the football player from Mike Vick the individual." But Sample added, "That said, I believe in redemption and giving individuals a chance to repent and redeem themselves." Sample said that while "only Mike Vick can know what is truly in his heart," he does appear to be "trying to be a positive influence in the community."
But some fans are still not convinced.
Bud Shaffer, of Hatboro, is one of them. "I am still not a fan of his," said Shaffer. "Yes, he is playing well. And all indications are that is [doing] well off the field. I sure hope so. But I still find it hard to forgive him for the heinous crimes he committed."
Shaffer added that he was "troubled" that Vick has said he would like to own a dog again. Others who participated in the survey and were contacted said the same. However, Shaffer said he still supports the Eagles. "Absolutely," he said. "That has not changed. I hope their stellar play continues. Maybe more time will soften my heart toward him. I hope so."
Bill Hand, of Sewell, N.J., said Vick "still needs to be held under scrutiny." But Hand said that his allegiance is with the team and because of that, his performance makes it easier to accept him back." Hand added, "You can see he has worked very hard to get himself in shape and has listened to his coaches, which [has] improved his game so much that he is an MVP candidate."
Brian Reed, of West Chester, said he cheers for Vick "because he is the quarterback for the football team I have supported since I was a young boy." However, he acknowledged that he still struggles with separating the player from the individual and was concerned when there was gunplay at the birthday party that was held for Vick last summer (even though Vick had left the scene before it began). Reed said it is "not just about winning," and that "for now, I still need to see more from him in terms of remorse and community service" before he can "fully forgive him for his actions."
And Art Matusow, of Ardmore?
Well, it comes down to just "biting" his tongue.
"I have been an Eagles fan since 1958 and I have never seen quarterbacking like I have witnessed this year," said Matusow. "I was totally against the Eagles signing Vick and cannot forgive him for what he did. I have therefore separated the man from the football player. I have been impressed by the way he has handled himself and would like to believe he has changed. But I am far from convinced."
So for now Matusow said he will do this: Enjoy "Mike Vick the football player and leave it at that." *