MIAMI - Right before the game, the circle of Eagles players on the field might have been just a notch less rambunctious than usual. In normal times, that mass of bouncing, chanting behemoths is a cocktail measured out in two parts testosterone and eight parts adrenaline. This was less, just a bit.
Why? Because quarterback Michael Vick was in the middle. And, as defensive end Jason Babin said, "When Mike speaks, we listen to him."
Vick put himself out there this week - way out there - and everyone knew it. After missing 3 weeks with broken ribs, Vick was going to be playing against the Miami Dolphins. And with the team at 4-8 - its playoff chances only a glimmer in a mathematician's eye, and coming off a putrid loss to the Seattle Seahawks - Vick said that the last month of the regular season was on him.
He said, "The last four games are going to be vital for myself and everybody else on this team who considers themselves to be a leader," and then added, "And me being the quarterback of this team, I have to show a tremendous amount of leadership, and that's what I've been born and bred to do."
He was turning these last four games into a referendum on his leadership, and nothing less. It was gutsy, to say the least - because while leadership can be an overrated sporting commodity, it becomes a real thing with real consequences when a player publicly insists on wearing the mantle himself. That is what Vick did.
And in the middle of that pregame huddle, Babin said, "He was talking about winning."
All of which, granted, is not particularly profound. But on a day when he was still clearly hurting, Vick stuck it out, and he stuck it out efficiently enough, and the defense rallied to beat the Dolphins, 26-10. He would like to believe that his example meant something to a team that appeared on the verge of a complete and total implosion after the Dec. 1 loss at Seattle.
"I hope so," he said. "It shows my dedication, my will to win. I want to be out there and be the best player that I can be. I try each and every week, and I want to be accountable, and want to hold my weight. That's all I tried to do."
Vick's numbers were pedestrian: 15-for-30 for 208 yards, one touchdown and one interception. He was sacked four times and banged around a few others. Vick was slipping on the wet field early in the game and changed his cleats to get better traction. He promised to slide and protect himself and then played as recklessly as ever, admitting after the game that he just can't do it.
Overall, in the second half, the offense became completely stagnant as it tried to protect a 24-7 halftime lead. But Vick still hung in.
"The only thing I wanted to do was finish, get through the game," he said. "I did the best I could."
Later, he added, "I just got hit a lot. It kind of wore me down. But that's just football . . . You've just got to keep pushing, getting better."
The Eagles are in this odd netherworld right now - still slightly alive for the playoffs (emphasis on the slightly) but, at the same time, trying to figure out what they have for the future. The Fire Andy people can play it both ways at this point. Win a game like this and they say that it's ridiculous that it took so long. Lose a game like this and they say the team quit. When you dominate the conversation, as the Fire Andy contingent does, that is your privilege.
For the players, though, these games are about securing future employment and about determining whether the roster will be facing dynamite in the offseason. They all know it, too - and Vick just upped the stakes with his leadership pledge. After this one was over, he said, "This team can do anything they want to do. It's all about a mind-set. As long as that mind-set is right, we can make it happen."
It is more complicated than that, of course. And attaching too much meaning to these last few games would be a mistake. At the same time, dismissing them completely would also be wrong. To lose out from here would tell you something and to win the last four games would not mean nothing - not to the coach, or the organization, or the quarterback who claims the position of leadership on a team so filled with disappointment.