PHILADELPHIA -- Even a 48-22 demolition Sunday at the hands of the New Orleans Saints and the myriad problems on defense and special teams it revealed did not obscure the one true subtext of the Philadelphia Eagles' season: the return of Michael Vick.
Outside the stadium, the anti-Vicks stood at different checkpoints, their dissent documented for the record. Vick is on the team, a decision made long ago; nonetheless, out the protestors stood, picketing with signs and banners and shouts. They numbered between 50 and 75 people, a physical reminder to Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie and coach Andy Reid -- as to Vick himself -- that all is not forgiven.
While Vick watched the debacle on the field, shielded by Lurie's private luxury box, nine times the Eagles ran the offensive formation -- the exotic Wildcat -- so well contoured to the special set of athletic skills Philadelphia inherited when the club signed him two months ago. It couldn't have helped but look like a preview of how Vick will be used.
Handcuffed by his dogfighting conviction and the slow-motion nature of his reinstatement, Vick essentially has lived in a state of suspended animation during the past four months, leaving much of his saga inorganic. Like O.J. Simpson or Martha Stewart or Kenneth Lay and other members of the gilded disgraced, Vick has been less a person and more a symbol, an American flash point for important, uncomfortable conversations about fame and wealth, justice and injustice, race and privilege.
For nearly three years, what Vick did has been far more relevant than what he is doing. But on Sunday, the symbol once again becomes a person, his actions finally a part of his and his team's narrative. Barring the unexpected, Vick will return to the NFL regular season for the first time since Dec. 31, 2006, this weekend at home against the Kansas City Chiefs.
There is what the public believes and then there is the life Vick himself must live, and for the first time, they will converge this weekend. Instead of being a stagnant figure of the dreaded news cycle -- the totem pole around which the crows buzz incessantly -- he will again become dynamic. The much-awaited stage of tangible discovery will begin, both for him and for the public.
He will give interviews, as he did before. He will play football, as he did before. Each day will produce another step of physical distance away from his time in prison, each day providing evidence that he has earned his freedom and that the future is his own, or reinforcement for his detractors who believe that neither his talent nor prison could redeem him, that he does not deserve this golden chance at redemption. And we will find out more about how Vick negotiates the world of "rehabilitation," where to some of the public he always will be nothing more than an ex-con, that he might physically have left his prison jumpsuit behind at Leavenworth but figuratively will always wear it.
No man -- as Mike Tyson proved most spectacularly -- leaves prison quite the same as the day he entered, and Sunday will begin to answer the question as to whether Vick can still play football. The specter of Vick hovered over both the Eagles and the Saints last week, as much on New Orleans as on Philadelphia.
On the third play of the Eagles' first series Sunday, Philadelphia for the first time in the regular season unveiled the Wildcat. DeSean Jackson lined up at quarterback on a third-and-2 from his own 23 and ran for 6 yards. Throughout the course of the game, the Eagles used the Wildcat eight more times. Jackson, receiver Jeremy Maclin and running back Brian Westbrook all lined up at quarterback at least once; had the game been close in the second half, when a running attack could have affected the outcome, it is likely the Eagles would have employed the Wildcat even more.
None of those players is much of a threat to throw the ball -- on the goal line, Westbrook pitched an incomplete wobbler to Leonard Weaver when a better-thrown ball likely would have produced a touchdown. But Vick in the backfield represents a different dynamic.
"What it means is that you have to play fundamentally sound defense," said Saints safety Pierson Prioleau. "You've got misdirection. You've got reverses. Everyone has to be cognizant of their job.
"If Vick has any juice left, watch out. You've already got Jackson, who is dangerous any time he touches the ball. Vick is the key. What we don't know is if he has the juice. But if he has anything left close to what he had, you are not going to want to defend against them."
The next afternoon, clearly sensing the coming six-day avalanche, Reid reacted to the spattering of Vick questions with all the enthusiasm of a three-toed sloth. But what did seem to capture his enthusiasm is the potential of the Wildcat with Vick in it.
"Whatever term you want to give the thing, it averaged 5.7 yards and five first downs," Reid said, adding that Vick likely would not play quarterback but would see some time on the field Sunday. "Is he 100 percent back? I couldn't say that. I don't plan on putting him in that position."
Reid himself was uninspiring on the subject of Vick on Monday, and again on Wednesday. Perhaps it is because he was weary of talking about a player who has yet to take a snap in a live game so soon after his team, through penalties and turnovers (and being overmatched by a dominant New Orleans offense), played itself out of what was a close game in the first half on Sunday.
Maybe it is because he didn't want to say what he knows.
Or maybe it is because after only two months, he doesn't know anything about Michael Vick. Maybe he doesn't know him well enough to submit a theory regarding Vick's state of mind, his personality, how he is handling the emotional challenge of knowing that despite the rhetoric about paying one's debt to society and second chances and rebuilding trust, people see only the acts that sent him to prison.
But Reid and his players know what it is like when the public exercises its right to judge, when strangers think they know you and think they're better than you. Between 2007 and 2008, Reid's oldest sons, Garrett and Britt, spent time behind bars for unrelated but serious offenses. Garrett Reid, an admitted drug dealer and user, was arrested for running a red light and hitting another car with his SUV; and, when authorities discovered syringes with testosterone and heroin in his vehicle, admitted that he'd used heroin the day it happened.
On the same day his brother was arrested, Britt Reid was involved in a separate incident and pointed a loaded handgun at another driver. He pleaded guilty to, among other charges, carrying a firearm without a license.
During sentencing in 2008, Steven O'Neill, the judge in both cases, said that he believed Andy Reid and his wife, Tammy, loved their sons, but referred to the Reid household as a "drug emporium," essentially suggesting the parents had enabled their children's drug use. He publicly referred to the Reids' home life as "a family in crisis."
So Reid knows what it is like to have outsiders deciding whether he is a fit father. Reid chose not to engage. He took a five-week leave of absence from the Eagles in early 2008 and then immersed himself in his work, as people often do when one component of life collapses.
But he didn't answer the question about Vick, about whether he thinks football is providing a similar sanctuary for Vick, about whether the game is the one place where he can be shielded from every snicker, every gibe, from every guy out there with his own problems who nevertheless feels empowered to ridicule and judge Vick because Vick is a convicted felon and he is not.
After Sunday's game, Gregg Williams, the Saints' defensive coordinator, said he believes football is probably the only place where Vick has felt comfortable as a person. Williams does not profess to know Vick, but Williams knows firsthand, too, some of what the quarterback faces. When he was defensive coordinator in Washington, Williams was the late Sean Taylor's most committed supporter. He was devastated when Taylor was murdered in November 2007.
Williams recalled Taylor and how the two argued about life and responsibility. The arguments, Williams said, always ended with mutual respect, although it sometimes was difficult to attain. He said Taylor would tell him football was sometimes the only place where life made sense. Williams likened it to being alone on a basketball court shooting foul shots, the only place where the rest of the world could be subdued, even if for only a moment.
Prioleau, who played in the same backfield as Taylor in Washington, describes the experience this way: "Definitely, football provides peace. When you step into the practice building or the venue, it's like being in another world. When you put that uniform on, you feel like your own superhero, that for this little window of time, nobody can touch you. You don't hear them. You don't see them."
Sunday will be only the first day in a season's worth of revelations for, and about, Vick. There will be challenges, for Vick is about to begin playing two different games. The first, the most important one, he has been playing in street clothes since his release from prison. The second -- beginning Sunday -- is the one that might provide him enough peace to succeed at the first.
"Isn't that what prison is all about? About rehabilitation?" Prioleau said. "Maybe that's not what it is in real life because we all know how people are. But that's supposed to be what it's all about. He went to prison, and you can't get any more serious than that. He has his chance, so let him have it. The only ones they leave in there for life are the ones who don't deserve a second chance."
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "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@espn3.com or followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/hbryant42.