Michael Vick's return handled justly

Michael Vick's final pass of the 2010-11 postseason was an interception in the end zone against the Green Bay Packers, a team whose home-field postseason invincibility Vick had shattered a lifetime ago when he was on top of the world as the star of the Atlanta Falcons.

The Packers eliminated Philadelphia and Vick's former team and will now play their rivals from Chicago while Vick, like every other player no longer in the tournament, will await the future. He is an unrestricted free agent following a season of on-field redemption and off-field reclamation, and if the NFL can solve its percolating labor issues, he stands to be the hottest commodity on the market.

It has been two full years since Vick began the journey of restarting his life and his career after 23 months in prison; two years of division and anger and waiting and seeing; two years of wondering how the Vick story would play out, what he would do and how he would be treated, what those actions would say about who he is as a person and who we are as a people.

And on balance, the system worked. Vick and society both won. Vick served his time not in a coffee shop detention hall but in the famed and feared federal penitentiary at Leavenworth. Then he was given a second chance in the NFL, which he returned to as a top performer in his field. He was not handed a starting job, either in his first season with the Eagles or his second, doing what all backups must do: perform when an opportunity is presented. Vick did that and more, and may very well win the NFL Most Valuable Player award. He is again a millionaire and stands to earn far more in the future than the $5.2 million he earned this season (though nearly two-thirds of his salary this year goes to creditors and taxes, a percentage that increases with his earnings through 2015).

In a culture numb to the gilded escaping freely, the rich buying their way out of responsibility by writing a check or signing an autograph, society won, too, for Vick was not handed a golden key following his incarceration. He was held accountable by the justice system, which sent him to prison; by his employer, which suspended him and treated him with appropriate skepticism; and most importantly by the public. Some members of that public appropriately view him as having served his time, meaning he is now free to resume a better, rehabilitated life; others appropriately want him to pay his social debt as well as his legal one; and still others will never forgive him for killing and torturing dogs, essentially for profit.

The analogies that the system worked because Vick was allowed to resume his life are not completely accurate, simply by dint of the professional athlete's immense and unique talents. If a thousand people possessed the talent to replace Vick, as would be the case with, say, an accountant or journalist, perhaps Vick would not have been afforded the opportunities for re-entry he received in the NFL. Such is the luck and advantage of his special gift.

Still, this is exactly how the first two years of Vick's new chapter should have unfolded, and the third year will provide yet another test: Has he proven enough to teams that he can be counted on and trusted as a leader?

No man leaves prison the same as when he entered, but over the course of the 2010 season, when Vick became a starter for the first time since 2007, he did not display the erosion of physical skills or the loss of speed and elusiveness many expected after his two years away from the game. In fact, his skills seemed enhanced by better decision-making. He reached the perfect intersection of his physical abilities and intellectual knowledge of his position, and the result was a season-long performance that few people could have anticipated.

Vick threw for the most yards in his career, crossing the 3,000-yard mark for the first time. He threw for the most touchdowns and the fewest interceptions as a regular, posted the highest completion percentage, quarterback rating and yards per pass as well as the best touchdown-to-interception differential (+15) and overall touchdown-to-turnover differential (+21) of his career.

He increased his efficiency without losing his electricity or his game-breaking ability, as the New York Giants and Washington Redskins can certainly attest. When the time comes, the Minnesota Vikings, Miami Dolphins, Arizona Cardinals, Tennessee Titans, Oakland Raiders and San Francisco 49ers would each benefit from having Vick at quarterback.

His current/former employer, the Philadelphia Eagles, would also benefit from retaining him. The Eagles did not advance in the playoffs this year, but Vick was hardly the problem. The Eagles' thin offensive line (Winston Justice? Really?) had Vick bailing from the pocket increasingly earlier, especially following the team's odd Tuesday night loss to Minnesota on Dec. 28, in which Vick was sacked six times. That, and Vick, like Donovan McNabb before him, played for a coach (Andy Reid) whose disinterest in a running game asks his quarterbacks to do far too much.

For the Eagles, a solid organization and perennial contender, retaining Vick may have little to do with Vick the player and more with Vick the free agent. The Eagles' question may be no more complicated than whether the front office believes it can win 10 regular-season games with Kevin Kolb. If it does, the millions it can save on Vick could be spent on other areas of the team. Still, there is no question based on track record that Philadelphia is a better, more dangerous team with Vick as its quarterback.

Off the field, there were minor obstacles for Vick: the offseason birthday party that had the potential to derail him and his statement late in the season that he would like to own a dog, a comment that seemed to create gratuitous incitement.

Yet both sides in that instance were correct. Vick had the right to express his interest in dog ownership and his belief that he has paid sufficiently for his crimes. The public and animal-rights advocates reminded him that he is not the only one who gets to decide how much penance is enough.

In all, the system worked, which is more than can be said in most cases of the rich and famous. Vick is not whole. He will never be, nor will the animals he killed and injured, the people horrified by his actions, the supporters whom he let down. He was, however, in a position where his life could have gone in the direction of his choosing, and thus far he has chosen carefully and well. In the end, the reward won't be whether the public has or hasn't forgiven him, or how many teams will eventually throw a blockbuster free-agent offer at his feet. His greatest reward will come if he continues to like what he sees in the mirror.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com.