PHILADELPHIA -- With the final eight games of the 2010 season perhaps the most important of his controversial NFL career, Michael Vick has quietly strengthened himself behind the scenes for a possible big free-agent deal, if he stays healthy and leads the Eagles to the playoffs.
Vick’s agent, Joel Segal, recently joined forces with a French multi-national sports marketing conglomerate called Lagardere Unlimited, which just expanded to larger offices in New York and wants to become a major player in professional sports in the U.S.
Segal is still in a position to be the lead player in the Vick negotiations with the Eagles, or any other NFL team -- right now.
But top executives at Lagardere have been watching the situation closely, and the agency is determined to help Vick, who will be an unrestricted free agent in 2011, achieve the greatest financial reward possible, as soon as possible, according to sources close to Vick’s business dealings.
"Michael will be the most sought after free-agent quarterback on the market in 2011 -- and maybe of the last five years," said a person with direct knowledge of Vick’s business dealings. "He has a chance to get a big payday."
Lagardere acquired BEST (Blue Equity Sports Television), headed by Segal, who also represents Reggie Bush, Chris Johnson and Randy Moss. But Vick was the centerpiece that interested Lagardere, company officials say. Under the deal, Segal remains head of Lagardere’s football group. Segal declined to comment.
“We don’t comment on employees and or clients,” Lagardere chief operating officer Kevin O’Connor said. “We take a very low-key approach.”
Said a rival agent who did not want to be identified: "This is a smart move for Vick. Lagardere is a big operation and they are trying to buy up everything in sight. It gives Michael more clout and a better position from a marketing standpoint."
Unfortunately, the timing for a new deal is not good right now. With the NFL labor negotiations in a state of flux, most teams are taking a conservative approach to renegotiating existing contracts. In the past, the Eagles have been one of the most aggressive teams in seeking long-term contract extensions before a player’s current deal expires -- usually choosing to do such deals in the month of November.
But because of the labor uncertainty, that’s unlikely. Any new deal would have to take into account too many unknowns about the structure of a new collective bargaining agreement with the NFL players’ union.
Moreover, Vick -- who was saved by the Eagles last year and now has saved their season this year -- has to prove he can stay healthy and productive through the final eight games. He already has missed a month because he recklessly dove into the end zone against the Redskins on Oct. 3, resulting in a painful rib injury that could easily be aggravated.
Prior to Sunday’s victory over the Colts, Vick promised to play more conservatively. He didn’t. He scrambled seven times for 73 yards, running out of bounds only once. And he did not slide at end of the others, something the Eagles’ coaching staff has encouraged him to do.
Last Saturday night, Segal was in Philadelphia, meeting with Vick to discuss myriad topics, including his style of play and future. Segal implored him not to be reckless, according to a source with knowledge of the discussion. After the game, Vick said he’s heard everybody talk about his style, but he’s not going to change.
"I think I did a good job of protecting myself at times," said Vick, who leads the NFL in passer rating. "But I’m not going to play this game scared or hesitant or conservative."
With the uncertainty of the labor negotiations and the uncertainty of whether Vick can survive the season, there is no sense of urgency regarding a new deal for the quarterback. The Eagles have an extraordinary insurance policy in Kevin Kolb, who is under contract in 2011. Kolb's presence on the roster is also a powerful bargaining chip for the Eagles. It means they do not have to be in any hurry to sign Vick or necessarily meet his demands.
Of course, if Vick stays healthy for the remaining eight games, leads the Eagles to the playoffs and performs well in the postseason, then the front office will have a difficult time selling to their fan base that they are not going to pay Vick what he wants, and go with Kolb.
The Eagles could always use a franchise tag on Vick -- if such a negotiating instrument is included in the new CBA deal. And there is no telling when a new deal will be reached, which further complicates the timing of things.
In the case of Johnson, Segal was able to get his client a lucrative new deal in this current unstable labor environment. But that was at the start of the season -- doing a new deal now will be a lot more difficult.
But the fact that Segal is now under the powerful umbrella of the Lagardere conglomerate certainly gives Vick more clout.
Sal Paolantonio covers the NFL for ESPN.com