CORTLAND, N.Y. - Michael Vick made a play Tuesday that made you catch your breath - because even though he is 34 years old and spent 18 months in prison and is about to begin his 12th season in the NFL, he is still good for at least one play in any practice or game that will make you catch your breath.
This time he was gliding backward in the pocket during a brief intrasquad scrimmage with his new team, the New York Jets, when he snapped his left arm downward to throw a 10-yard out to wide receiver Greg Salas. From the sidelines at State University of New York-Cortland, the Jets' training-camp site, it was easier to track the throw's precision and velocity, to appreciate the ease with which Vick had delivered such a difficult pass. Just that snap, and the football seemed to appear in Salas' hands.
In that moment, it was difficult not to wonder how last season would have played out for the Eagles had Vick not felt his left hamstring pop during that October game against the New York Giants, had Nick Foles not taken over for him as the team's starting quarterback. Everything about Chip Kelly and his plan and his players' familiarity with it was still relatively new then. Vick would have had more time in it, and what would that additional experience in the system have wrought? Would the Eagles have reached the playoffs? Where would they be now? Where would he be?
Those aren't questions that Vick contemplates much anymore. There's little that he values more than loyalty, and during a post-practice interview here he betrayed no bitterness toward the Eagles for sticking with Foles, for letting Vick test free agency and eventually sign as a backup with the Jets. The Eagles had stuck by him, and he would not blame them for moving on.
"I have a lot of love for that organization," he said, "for what they did for me."
The franchise had given him a way back to the NFL in 2009 after he had served his prison sentence on dogfighting charges, and Kelly had done more than name him the team's No. 1 quarterback before last season. Kelly had recognized immediately the esteem in which many of Vick's teammates held him, the reverence a generation of NFL players raised on video games had for his talents, and Kelly had relied on Vick to make sure everyone in the locker room absorbed the new head coach's message - particularly two of the most talented and immature players on the roster at the time, DeSean Jackson and LeSean McCoy.
On multiple occasions, Vick said, Kelly had him address Jackson and McCoy individually to make sure the two were accepting of Kelly's system and precepts. Apparently, those one-on-one conversations went only so far with Jackson. The Eagles released him in March, and Vick hinted that Jackson displayed a measure of insubordination that Kelly no longer could abide.
"With letting DeSean go, I couldn't fathom that, but Chip always does what he thinks is right," Vick said. "Whether it was the right situation or wrong, nobody goes into detail about that anymore."
If you were still an Eagle, he was asked, would Jackson still be one, too?
"Maybe. Maybe not," he said. "At the end of the day, it's Chip's team. It's not my team. Chip has to feel respected more than myself if I was still there as a quarterback. Now maybe Chip would have called me in and said, 'Listen, you talk to DeSean, and I'll talk to DeSean.' That's why we develop as leaders as players, and some guys on that team are going to have to step up as leaders down the road."
As close as he remains to Jackson, Vick doesn't believe that the Eagles will miss him much. He pooh-poohed the notion that the offense is lesser for Jackson's absence, that Jackson's speed on the outside occupied so much of an opposing defense's attention that other receivers could free themselves more easily. "There's no truth to that," Vick said. "What Chip specializes in is finding ways to get guys the ball."
His old offensive coordinator with the Eagles, Marty Mornhinweg, has a similar reputation, and Vick's decision in March to sign with the Jets was an astute calculation. It reunited him with Mornhinweg, and it gave Jets coach Rex Ryan a viable option should second-year starter Geno Smith falter. During an up-and-down rookie year, Smith completed just 56 percent of his passes and threw nine more interceptions (21) than he did touchdowns (12), but because Mark Sanchez had injured his shoulder during the preseason, the Jets had no feasible alternative to playing Smith and enduring his growing pains. Now, in Vick, they do.
"I'm content with my situation," Vick said. "I'm glad that I'm still relevant somehow, someway. That goes to show I'm doing something right."
He might get a chance to start with the Jets. He might not. Either way, he said: "I thank God that I'm still able to play the game of football."
Behind him, the Jets' practice fields had been empty of fans and coaches and players for a while now, and Michael Vick - still relevant after all these years, after all the good he had done inside the Eagles' locker room and all the bad he had done before he'd arrived there - was the last man to leave them.